Our mainstream entertainment product — the popular, profitable junk — almost always reveals more about our cultural values than the stuff that’s actually trying to say something. So what does “Get Hard” say about us?
It’s pretty complicated.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle when the new big-screen comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart premiered at the South by Southwest film festival earlier this month. Taking questions after the screening, the film’s director and co-writer, Greater Boston-raised Etan Cohen, was confronted by an audience member who, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, called the movie “racist as [expletive]” and asked the filmmaker “how nervous were you presenting this in front of a live audience being completely, absolutely and unapologetically . . . racist and hysterical at the same time?” Other moviegoers chimed in, and Cohen found himself uneasily acknowledging that trying to satirize negative cultural attitudes without appearing to condone them can be “a dangerous thing.”
In the movie, Ferrell plays a rich white boob convicted of embezzlement and facing hard time in prison. Desperate to toughen up, he reaches out to the only black person he knows — a car-wash owner played by Hart, who the boob mistakenly thinks is an ex-con. There ensue many jokes about prison rape, blackface, white entitlement, and who can and can’t use the N-word. It’s the latest and most in-your-face of a long lineage that arguably stretches back to “Stir Crazy” and “Trading Places” in the early ’80s.
So is “Get Hard” racist? Yes and no; the question itself opens up an interesting conversation about how our entertainments reflect and distort the social realities we choose to believe in (as opposed to the ones that are actually out there). I saw the film at a promotional screening the other night, and I can say this: It’s broad as a barn, occasionally gross, and generally pretty stupid. Funny? I laughed about twice. But the packed preview audience — as solid an ethnic cross-section as you’ll find in downtown Boston — ate the comedy up, and as I left the multiplex I could eavesdrop on groups of black moviegoers, among others, who thought the thing was hilarious. They didn’t find it racist, so what’s your problem, chump?
Actually — and now I’m going to commit the unpardonable sin of analyzing and thereby killing comedy — “Get Hard” is a fine example of how our pop culture products blur the line between the racial and the racist, creating a schizophrenic gray area where offenses are both taken and soothed, sometimes at the same time. The movie does parody white fears of blackness, with Ferrell’s clueless 1-percenter assuming the hard-working Hart has to be a criminal based on the color of his skin. It also indulges those fears, since, aside from Hart’s character and his wife and daughter, just about every other person of color is a pistol-packing gangbanger glowering from a ghetto porch.
Well, the white characters are just as cartoonishly drawn — it’s a Will Ferrell movie, for pete’s sake, which means we’ll get a shot of the actor’s naked butt cheeks before the opening credits are even over. But saying that all white people are rich and uptight isn’t the same as saying every black guy except for Kevin Hart is a thug — not in an age of Ferguson protests, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. (And Tony Robinson.) (And Anthony Hill.) There’s a larger imbalance of power that’s not being addressed. “Get Hard” illustrates how trying to explode racial assumptions can easily turn into exploiting them when lazy thinking (and screenwriting) get involved. The attitudes the movie wants us to think about and laugh at only end up being confirmed.
Actually, “Get Hard” is as much a cartoon about class and the divide between the haves and have-nots. (There are no visible have-somes; according to this movie, the American middle class, black or white, doesn’t exist.) That’s no surprise since many of the conversations we have about race are really about social class or some inextricable mixture of the two. This is our lot in America, a country founded on a racial disparity that has only partly transformed over the centuries into a mind-bogglingly complex field of social caste and signifiers. It’s a birthright that we have to figure our way out of — by thinking and talking about it — or turn helplessly inward to tribalism and insularity. “Get Hard” is a particularly silly example of both tendencies.
Of course, what the movie’s really about is little boys onscreen and off and the things that terrify them. Women, for one thing: Aside from the car-washer’s wife and daughter (likably played by Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal), the only female roles are the rich guy’s castrating gold-digger of a fiancee (a waste of the talented Alison Brie) and the gang-banger girl (Dominique Perry) whose sole purpose is to shake her boo-tay in Ferrell’s and our faces. Well, we do see a Nazi biker chick — or, rather, her breasts squished against a car windshield.
Another area of concern? Other men’s penises. “Get Hard” is the latest in a long line of Hollywood bromances that positively cringe with gay panic. (Please, that title.) The jokes that aren’t about race are about prison rape (which means they’re about race) and fellatio, complete with a shock cut to a random guy’s naughty bits. (The preview audience shrieked as if they were at a horror movie.) Is this really about homophobia? Not really — it’s just the reigning entertainment-industry metaphor for guys wrestling with their feelings for each other. If you love your buddy, is it, y’know, gay?
That’s an adolescent concern, obviously, and “Get Hard,” like most of our mainstream comedies, plays as though it were created by 13-year-old boys for a nation of 13-year-old boys. (It’s rated R, of course.) That fake edginess — the giggly shockwaves from saying rude, “daring” things about race and sex — is probably what will make the movie a hit. You could hope the creative comic minds of Hollywood would some day just grow up; Ferrell is pushing 50, after all. But that would mean a sizable portion of the audience would have to as well.
Watch Critics Ty Burr and Janice Page comment on “Get Hard”: