The purpose of Kevin Hart going on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, in a lengthy interview teased Friday, appears to be threefold. First and foremost, it gave him a huge platform from which to insist that he’s sorry for his past homophobic jokes to ABC’s audience and the entertainment industry alike, a month after stepping down from hosting the Oscars when his words resurfaced. Second, it showed that he has one of the most powerful gay people in Hollywood on his side to the point that she apparently called the Academy to insist that he host the Oscars after all. And finally, it let him defend himself against “the trolls” who, in his eyes, resurfaced old tweets specifically to bring him and his career down.
Hart’s apology at the top of the interview is, despite his protests otherwise, the first of its kind. Though he’s adamant that he had already apologized for jokes about beating the gay out of his son, “addressing” them is not the same thing as acknowledging, as he finally did on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” that “it was wrong.” That in an of itself is a step forward, and as Hart said, “you can’t grow as a person without mistakes.” Hart’s homophobic jokes were never good or funny, and stepping up to say it and recognize the harm they might have caused given Hart’s incredible reach is absolutely laudable.
Had the interview been left there, it might have made some sense. But DeGeneres then opened the door to the idea that Hart’s critics were en masse nothing but “haters” who were picking on Hart simply because they could. “Whatever’s going on on the internet, don’t pay attention to them,” DeGeneres told Hart. She later added that if Hart doesn’t host the Oscars, “they win,” and “who knows who these people are, and who cares.” This strikes an obvious chord with Hart, who got animated as he emphasized that “it wasn’t a coincidence” that the backlash came the morning after he got the job. “Someone has to take a stand,” Hart said, against the faceless people who just wanted to launch “an attack to end me.”
For someone who wasn’t paying close attention to the backlash, this maybe sounds reasonable. The internet is absolutely prone to stumbling into snowballing arguments, often overwhelming reason with sheer volume of passion. But with Hart, that was categorically not the case.
Hart got blowback from the LGBTQ community and beyond because he had made violent homophobic “jokes” and had thus far failed to meaningfully reckon with them. He got more heat when he insisted that he had already apologized, when in fact he had only ever acknowledged the jokes in passing. He met skepticism when he kept saying that the jokes were old news when as recently as 2015, he insisted that he wouldn’t tell them again only because “the times weren’t as sensitive” as when he first said them.
And no, it wasn’t a “coincidence” that this all bubbled back to the surface the day after the announcement, but not because of some grand conspiracy to destroy Hart and his hundreds of millions of dollars (which aren’t going anywhere, Oscars or no). It came back into focus because hosting the Oscars is one of the most prominent jobs in entertainment, and he was therefore bound to be under a sharper microscope than ever before. (Hart also seems to misunderstand Twitter on a basic level: no one needs to comb through his 40,000 tweets to find insensitivity when they can just use the search bar for “@KevinHart4Real + [a slur]”.) This would have happened any year that the internet could provide receipts of past bigotry, but not for nothing, felt even more urgent this year, when groundbreaking films featuring queer characters like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Favourite” are likely to be honored.
And so, yet again, Hart’s missed an opportunity to prove that he truly understands why people were upset or that he’s learned much at all. Instead, his recognition of bad jokes got lost in baseless conspiracy theorizing, egged on by DeGeneres. If he gets the job back, it won’t be because he’s convinced his detractors that he actually cares about gay people. It’ll be because he spun a story about vicious trolls going after him for no good reason. It might be a compelling enough angle to convince DeGeneres and her audience, but even if it manages to sway the Academy, it still won’t actually be true.