“Prison is not funny,” black scholar Dr. Boyce D. Watkins tells TheWrap, but the filmmakers remain defiant in the face of growing criticism
In the new comedy “Get Hard,” Will Ferrell gets a shock when his millionaire buffoon is hit with the harsh realities of a gritty future after being indicted for fraud and embezzlement. Enter Kevin Hart, who reluctantly lets Ferrell’s foolish character believe he’s been to prison and agrees to help him prepare for life behind bars. Let the off-color comedy and controversy begin.
“Get Hard’s” satirical take on race, class and jail will no doubt charm many of Ferrell and Hart’s fans, but some critics and commentators are far from impressed with director Etan Cohen‘s latest offering. The Warner Bros. film currently has a dismal 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics trashing it.
“Cohen repeatedly places himself and his performers on a tight rope between the fire and the frying pan… It’s a multiple balancing act that Cohen doesn’t have the grace, wit or sensitivity to pull off,” TheWrap‘s Inkoo Kang notes in her review of the film.
Kang is not alone. “Get Hard” is also catching heat for what some perceive as racist and homophobic overtones — criticism that has Ferrell, Hart and Cohen on the defensive.
“The truth was that this was a really delicate balance. We wanted to think about stereotypes but not go too far,” Cohen said during the Q&A following a screening at the
Among the scenes drawing fire, Ferrell’s character James mistakes Hart’s Darnell for a carjacker, instead of recognizing him as the car wash owner who’s been keeping his ride clean for the past two years.
“Just so you know, I would have done the same thing if you were white,” James says unconvincingly as Darnell looks on with an incredulous expression.
The overt racism is obviously a key element of the plot. But what’s touching even more of a nerve — the endless stream of jokes suggesting most black men have been to jail and that everyone who does time eventually gets raped.
In one scene, Darnell tries to prepare James for the inevitability of a homosexual encounter by making him practice with a friendly gay stranger.
“In context, it makes sense that Ferrell would cringe and groan… but in a larger cultural context of discomfort in comedy about male-on-male sexuality, the scene can also be read as wincingly homophobic,” said Kang in her review.
In a larger context, a black scholar insists joking about homosexuality and prison rape sends a harmful message to moviegoers.
“Prison is not funny,” Boyce D. Watkins, PhD told TheWrap. “It’s really not funny for black people, especially black men because black men are the most incarcerated group of human beings on the planet… I’ve heard stories about people going to prison and being raped repeatedly, and catching HIV because they were being sexually assaulted,” added Watkins who is known as “The People’s Scholar,” for his commentary on social justice.
While Hart’s character Darnell only pretends to have done time, he uses stereotypes to train James. There’s also a subplot involving Darnell’s cousin Russell, played by rapper T.I., who’s a gang member and ex-con.
Meanwhile, Russell’s criminal past casts a light on another complaint that Hollywood frequently relegates non-white actors to stereotypical roles that are subservient to white characters.
“I think that’s a burden to a lot of black actors and actresses,” Watkins opined. “What I think can occur… is that a lot of black actors and actresses, because they’re so desperate for work, they kind of know that this is what you’re expected to do. You’re expected to play a certain role. Maybe it’s something like the butler, or the prostitute or the guy who went to prison, whatever.”
Watkins isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last to take issue with what’s perceived as a lack of meaningful roles available to actors of color. David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Oscar-winning film “Selma,” echoed a similar complaint in a recent interview.
“Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders, or kings, or at the center of our own narrative driving it forward,” Oyelowo said at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February, where he was honored with a Virtuoso award for his breakthrough performance in the Ava DuVernay film.
But Hart and Ferrell say pushing boundaries with comedy is a way to make people think.
“The trick to keeping it funny is not being afraid to push the envelope,” Hart told the Associated Press during an interview alongside his co-star. “At the end of the day, stereotyping is a situation a lot of people are guilty of, including myself. Until you know someone, it’s unfair to judge that book by its cover.”
“Any time you’re going to do an R-rated comedy, you’re going to offend someone,” added Ferrell. “But that’s kind of what we do. We provoke. We prod. We also show a mirror to what’s already existing out there. We’re playing fictitious characters who are articulating some of the attitudes and misconceptions that already exist.”
Despite the controversy — or perhaps because of it — the film is poised to do big business at the box office. In fact, analysts are predicting an off the chain $40 million opening weekend.
“Get Hard” opens nationwide Friday.