Why Black Women Should Not Forgive Kevin Hart Even If Ellen Does (Guest Column)
The comedian claims he has evolved, but his long history of demeaning African-American women and his cavalier "apology" prove just the opposite, writes Keli Goff, TV scribe ('Black Lightning') and producer of Netflix's 'Reversing Roe.'
Ellen DeGeneres has found herself facing a backlash for defending another comedian facing a backlash.
On Friday she welcomed comedian Kevin Hart onto her show to give him a platform to address the public fallout from his selection and abrupt exit as Oscar host. For those fortunate enough to have been on an internet detox this holiday season, here are the key points of the saga.
Hart used jokes and language brimming with homophobia on Twitter before transforming into Kevin Hart, bankable box office star. According to Hart, he has already previously "addressed" his poor language choices and apologized, so when the Academy gave what amounted to an ultimatum (apologize, or else!), he demurred and exited. The Academy is still searching for a replacement host, and Ellen is lobbying for Hart to get the gig back.
If DeGeneres, who I'm a great admirer of, thought that her interview of Hart would help his cause, she couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, she may have done more damage to his image, and possibly her own.
Let me get this out of the way: I think Ellen DeGeneres is funny, and I believe she contributes positively to the cultural fabric of this country.
I don't think either of those things about Kevin Hart.
But whether you or I think Kevin Hart is personally funny is irrelevant to this conversation. There are plenty of people with far more fabulous careers than mine whose work doesn't resonate with me. Those people have every right to take advantage of the successes that come their way. But when someone's success is predicated on demeaning others, that is when I believe all of us should care and use our platforms to speak out accordingly.
Now, before the eye-rolling begins, I don't identify as a conservative, but I actually do agree with conservatives that PC culture is starting to veer out of control and damaging discourse in this country. A study by More in Common found that more Americans are censoring themselves around people they don't closely identify with, meaning people are less likely to share candid thoughts on race around people of different races and people of one religion are less likely to discuss religion openly with someone of another faith, during a time in our nation's history when we need to build bridges most. Because advancement doesn't happen when we stop talking to each other. Which is why the Hart saga is such a disappointment. He had an opportunity to prove that the solution to the PC debate is not censorship or punishing people permanently for every misstep but giving people a chance to make a mistake and make genuine amends.
Hart's primary defenses are: He's a comedian. Comedians push the envelope. He's already apologized. Tweets do not represent the totality of one's character. People evolve. So let's get over it.
I actually agree with Hart, to an extent. Unfortunately for him his track record and interview with Ellen undermine most of his arguments.
For starters, his tweets were not isolated incidents. While Hart fundamentally lost the Oscar gig because of his controversial tweets about the LGBT community (specifically, how he might be tempted to hurt his child if he thought he were gay), they are not the only vulnerable population he has a record of demeaning. His tweets about black women have been problematic going back years. Apparently he and David Duke have something in common. They believe your melanin affects your intellect and behavior, so Hart believes darker-skinned women are less competent than lighter-skinned women with money, so he believes we have bad credit and are "broke ass hoes." (Despite his daughter, who is now old enough to read tweets, being darker-skinned.)
So one tweet may be a misstep. Tweets about multiple groups over a period of time, however, does tell me about your character. And tweets like these tell me nothing good.
True, he is a comedian and comedians push the envelope. Just because something makes me uncomfortable doesn't mean someone shouldn't be allowed to say it, and it doesn't mean someone shouldn't be allowed to laugh at it. For those of us working as writers in the age of Twitter and #MeToo, the line has become terrifyingly blurry.
However, we should all be able to agree on a few basics: Slurs should be off-limits, particularly if you're not a member of the targeted group; and name-calling or shaming someone for his or her appearance or other characteristics largely beyond her control should also be considered the terrain of writers not talented enough to come up with something else. But mainly, don't be a bully and punch down at the vulnerable. Punch up, as they say. I'm assuming to some degree Ellen must agree with me since I just watched her new special, "Relatable," and it didn't break any of these rules, and I still laughed throughout most of it.
But the most important rule, I would say, for comedians and writers creating art today, in a time when our every word or comma is scrutinized?
If you say or write something offensive, and you didn't mean to: apologize. Having worked in a writers room I'm now convinced it's not possible to make good film or TV without saying something in a room that pushes someone's buttons. That's not the issue. The issue is if and when you've crossed a line, apologize — and mean it. Especially if you have genuinely learned and evolved.
I certainly have. Like many Americans I would put myself in the category of a recovering Homophobe. I didn't use Hart's language, but I know I didn't always extend the notion of full equality to LGBT people the way I should have, particularly when I was younger. Now I couldn't imagine attending a place of worship where my LGBT friends didn't feel welcome, and I am thankful every day for the grace they have shown me throughout the course of my journey. But part of true evolution is owning when you got it wrong.
That's where Hart has failed himself, failed his fans, and failed Ellen. On her show he was clear about who he feels sorry for: himself. Hosting the Oscars was a dream for him. That dream is now dead. But he's not really sorry to those he's offended. The tell was in his language: "I'm sorry if these words hurt," he said, before adding that he's a better man today. But a better man wouldn't have said "if these words hurt." He would know that they have hurt and would have taken the time to educate himself on why. A better man wouldn't have quit in a huff. A better man would have used this as a sincere teachable moment for his fans. What you really mean is "I'm sorry my publicist is making me say this, but I really want this to go away."
I, for one, am truly sorry about this all. I'm sorry that one of the few black superstars in Hollywood and one of only a handful in history to have been in the running to host the Oscars has bungled things so badly. I'm sorry Hart has reinforced the incredibly harmful stereotype that black Americans are beyond redemption and growth when it comes to homophobia. I'm sorry he has helped drive a wedge between communities of color and LGBT people at a time in which disenfranchised people should be working together more than ever. And I'm sorry Ellen wasn't able to extract a bigger moment out of Hart's small-mindedness. Ellen has done more to advance the standing of LGBT people in this country than anyone else. This was a real missed opportunity.
I believe Hart respects Ellen. But I do question whether he respects those of us black women and LGBT people who aren't famous and powerful. I also question if Hart's aware that 10-year-old Anthony Avalos was tortured and beaten to death last year because his caregivers worried he was gay. And if Hart is aware of this story, does he still consider tweets about potentially demonizing a gay son just good humor?
Keli Goff is a producer of the Netflix documentary “Reversing Roe,” a writer on the CW’s "Black Lightning," and a contributor to KCRW's "Left, Right and Center."