It’s Time for Kevin Hart to Decide What He Wants His Legacy to Be

A barrage of avoidable bad decisions has turned the comic from a legend to a laughingstock

Photo: Kevin Kwan/Netflix from the Netflix documentary ‘Don’t F**k This Up’

A few days after Kevin Hart released his latest Netflix special, Zero F**ks Given, he was back in front of the camera, this time with an Instagram video reminding the world exactly how many fucks he gave. Twenty-three times he reminded us — 23 times in 88 seconds, every one of them claiming not to care that his disjointed, bland, hour-long attempt at comedy had gotten a lukewarm response.

That wasn’t the end of the Kevin Hart Self-Defense Tour: Days later, he hopped on the social media app Clubhouse to debate fans who were discussing Hart’s comedic merits in a room called “Is Kevin Hart Funny?” What could have been a moment of game-changing celebrity-fan engagement turned into yet another example of Hart’s inability to reckon with himself and insistence on addressing criticism in the worst ways possible. The room turned toxic; Black women were silenced.

Hart wasn’t just genuinely charismatic, with a magnetic smile and an infectious laugh; he was a walking meme, as quotable as any Drake hook.

The incident, which trended on Twitter, was just the latest in a seemingly nonstop barrage of avoidable poor public relations decisions from one of the world’s biggest stars.

There was a time when Hart was one of the most likable men in Hollywood. He had a relatively unanimous approval rating (more on that later) because we’d seen him grind from the beginning. We’d seen him steal a scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and become one of those “isn’t that the guy from…” bit players, racking up low-budget, straight-to-TV movies, hidden Netflix duds, and Soul Plane. We saw him do stand-up in dingy bars with grainy video quality and spotty audio. For the most part, we assumed Hart would just be a comedian we’d laugh at when we saw him, and eventually wonder where he’d went when his career inevitably petered off.

Then came the specials. Seriously Funny in 2010, and Laugh at My Pain in 2011 made “alright, alright, alright” and “night night” (not to mention the bit about cursing out his teacher) part of the Black everyday discourse. Hart wasn’t just genuinely charismatic, with a magnetic smile and an infectious laugh; he was a walking meme, as quotable as any Drake hook. Next, came movies like Think Like a Man in 2012 and Ride Along in 2014, both of which weathered tepid reviews to outperform their box office expectations. The world saw Hart as an overnight success — but Black folks remembered his unrelenting and public grind, and loved him for it.

Any scrappy underdog appeal Hart still had was gone. What we saw instead were private jets, waving money in people’s faces, and a refusal to truly reckon with his wrongs. Hart was a brand, all right — a brand that was hurting people and had little interest in doing better.

Bolstering that appeal was the belief that Hart did all of it while bringing along his day-ones: the Plastic Cup Boyz, a group of comedians, writers, childhood friends, and trainers who have grown in fame as Hart has amplified their profiles. Hart’s loyalty to his homies was part of his charm, and a sign of good character that we want to see succeed. (Perversely, we value a man’s loyalty to other men over his loyalty to his partner — like his first wife, Torrei, who he came into the business with only to leave as his level of fame rose.) So by the time his buddy movies with The Rock started popping up and Jumanji in 2017 asserted Hart as an undeniable Hollywood cash cow, he’d managed to thread the needle of oversaturating every market possible (why is Hart on Inside the NBA? Who cares!) while managing to hold on to a grassroots fan base that had rocked with him since Paper Soldiers.

But as is often the case when a star becomes a supernova, the shine becomes so bright that an implosion is right around the corner: a scandal or misstep that threatens to torpedo the rise. The measure of a star’s longevity is how they handle these obstacles. And however Hart has needed to handle his, he has consistently done the opposite.

This is where the “relative” in Hart’s “relatively unanimous approval rating” comes in. That’s because from the very beginning, a vocal LGBT population rang the alarm about Hart’s earlier stand-up material and tweets. Hart had done routines about beating up his son for having his first “gay moment.” He’d tweeted jokes about AIDS and used the “F” word. As often is the case, LGBT communities trying to hold Hart accountable were drowned out by the rest of us who laughed over their anguish. All that changed when Hart was picked to host the 2019 Oscars and those communities resurfaced those old clips and tweets all over again. This time, it caused a firestorm — the first mainstream scandal of Hart’s career. He’d had relationship scandals before but those were mostly confined to Black gossip circles. The Oscars controversy was on the morning talk shows.

Still, it could have all been a blip on the radar if Hart had simply apologized. Instead, he went on Instagram and said “I passed on the apology… I’ve addressed this several times. This is not the first time this has come up. I’ve addressed it. I’ve spoken on it. I’ve said where the rights and wrongs were.” The insinuation here was that Hart had already apologized for his comments, something he and his fans ran with. But in actuality, there’s no record of him ever previously apologizing. In 2015, for instance, when asked about his old jokes, he wrote it off as political correctness. “I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now,” he told Rolling Stone. “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can. These things become public spectacles.” Not quite the act of contrition anyone was looking for.

Ultimately, Hart posted a series of tweets about how he was stepping down from the Oscars while then apologizing for his old jokes. He even went on Ellen to continue his apology tour, which he could have just done in the beginning. But it was too late. Hart had become the face of a battle over “cancel culture,” using the example of his having to answer for years-old offenses as a symptom of a society that’s too sensitive to allow artists to express themselves. Hart was the symbol of a belief that free speech and comedy were under attack by a population of snowflakes hell-bent on ruining artistry. Whenever “cancel culture” arguments emerge, Hart’s name is sure to follow — as are the ahistorical claims that he was “kicked off” the Oscars. Dave Chappelle, another warrior on the front lines of a fictional war against “cancellation,” even did a whole bit on Hart as the victim.

He’s reminding us that accountability and understanding are concepts he simply refuses to demonstrate. And he’s providing more than enough justification for every fed-up fan who decides to walk away.

Hart, for his part, embraced the victim role, ignoring the fact that complaints about “cancel culture” only serve to silence legitimate movements and people who simply want a reckoning for the harm done to them. By doing so, Hart had to speak to a larger cultural battle — something he’s gravely unqualified to do. Every time he was called on to be an ambassador for a cultural reset, he fumbled.

Take his appearance on The Shop: Uninterrupted in 2019. When Lil Nas X spoke about homophobia and why he decided to come out, Hart spoke over him — “He said he was gay, so what?!” — feigning incredulity over why it would be a big deal for a Black queer man in hip-hop to come out. Hart gaslit X, using the same logic a White person uses when they say they don’t see color. It’s an act of silencing someone’s experience and struggle. I don’t know Hart’s intentions, but it certainly seemed like he was trying to use the conversation to show allyship with a community he hadn’t taken the time to make peace with — without even doing the work to understand what allyship looks like.

Hart sought out to regain control of the narrative at the beginning of 2020 with his Netflix documentary Don’t F**k This Up. The idea was that he would be able to explain everything in his own words, including the previously-revealed sex tape that showed he had cheated on his wife, Eniko, while she was eight months pregnant. (It bears mentioning that he confessed in part in order to get ahead of an alleged extortion attempt in 2017.)

The reality, again, did more harm than good. The doc showed a defiant, ill-informed man who cared more about his own ego than who he’s harming — even when that person is a gay creative executive trying to get him to understand why he’s so harmful. The one thing that seems to motivate Hart is the quest to become a billionaire, a desire he expressed many times in the doc.

Additionally, the way the documentary handled the Oscars fiasco was far outdone by its approach to the cheating scandal: a bizarre montage in which his close friends lined up to take blame for his cheating because they weren’t there to stop him. There’s no bigger sign than this that Hart is a man who doesn’t live by the same rules of accountability as the rest of us. Later in the doc, Hart handles an argument with his trainer (and Plastic Cup Boyz inner circle member), “Boss,” by holding wealth over the man’s head, insinuating that his money funds Boss’ lifestyle.

By the time the credits rolled, any scrappy underdog appeal Hart still had was gone. What we saw instead were private jets, ego, waving money in people’s faces, and a refusal to truly reckon with his wrongs. Hart was a brand, all right — a brand that was hurting people and had little interest in doing better.

It didn’t help that the string of PR debacles was happening just as Hart was at a creative nadir. His Netflix comedy specials What Now? and Irresponsible lacked the shimmering genius of his earlier works, instead relying on the same vocal inflections and a string of tepid catchphrases that had grown stale. Meanwhile, his movies, while still commercial hits, had been feeling just as warmed over.

Still, Hart could have released Zero F**ks Given and lived up to its name. People were always going to watch; all he needed to do was drop the special and keep it pushing. Instead, he’s reminding us how much he doesn’t give a fuck about bad reviews. He’s releasing videos explaining the nuances of whether or not he called his daughter a ho with zero self-awareness to realize that even having to make such a video means that you did something wrong along the way. And finally, he’s hopping in Clubhouse, trying to defend himself when people wonder if he’s funny.

Before Hart joined that Clubhouse conversation, I had already checked out the room, and found a lively discussion going on about freshness, creativity, and the nature of comedy. When I came back and Hart was on, he was doing what he’s become known for in these more serious exchanges of ideas: word vomit, circular logic, and empty-calorie gaslighting, all proof that he’s not doing the reading or considering anyone else’s thoughts. Hart swore that he was enjoying the discourse — all while kicking a Black woman out of the conversation. He was reminding us through his actions that accountability and understanding are concepts he simply refuses to demonstrate. And he’s providing more than enough justification for every fed-up fan who decides to walk away.

Hart is so fully established as a one-man entertainment conglomerate that quality can be an afterthought for the rest of his career. There’s no situation in which he’ll cease being a money-making commodity, and might even get to that three-comma end zone. He’ll still have Netflix specials. He’ll still have movies with The Rock. He’ll still be on every talk show and have any show he wants greenlit at any network he wants. There’s no stopping the gravy train any time soon.

All of which makes the appeal for him to do better even more important. Does he care about his work, or is he happy as long as his pockets get fatter? Does he care about being better or being richer? Does he want his audiences to laugh, or is he just happy they bought tickets? Hart can exist as a brand that loses his longtime supporters — or he can change, listen, and become someone we root for again. It’s all about if he’d rather be in a room full of strangers or be surrounded by the fans who made him who he is in the first place.

We know Hart gives a fuck about criticism. He just has to show that he gives a fuck about changing.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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