For the past several years, the Academy Awards have become more problematic than prestigious. From the #OscarsSoWhite controversy to the nominations (and wins) for disreputable stars like Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck to the Moonlight debacle, recent ceremonies have been soaked with controversy.
Some of these arguments have ignited important conversations about representation and the culture of Hollywood. But this year’s batch of drama— which arrives well before the January 22 announcement of the Academy Award nominees — feels somehow different. Rather than providing salient teaching moments about how the industry can and should improve, the most recent batch of issues seem like empty kindling for the culture wars.
Kevin Hart Steps Down
For evidence, one need look no further than the continuing outrage over the old homophobic jokes that cost Kevin Hart the hosting gig. No serious person — not even Kevin Hart — is defending this material or the sentiment behind it. They were hurtful, lazy jokes that, by his own admission, Hart would no longer tell today. When he stepped down as host, Hart apologized unequivocally.
For many in the media, Hart’s show of contrition has not been enough. His apologies? Fake. The backlash? Deserved. At this point, it’s clear that, to some, there’s nothing Kevin Hart could say to convince them he’s anything but an unrepentant bigot, which might be why he’s now testily refusing to talk about it (a tactic that’s being used as Exhibit B that he’s still homophobic).
Once more, to be clear, I think Kevin Hart made terrible jokes and he should have apologized. But the spray of bullets flying at Hart’s character have been fired from what we’ll call the Selective Outrage Gunn, in which old tweets, comments and jokes are dragged out of the closet, examined with literalism and bad faith and are cited as evidence against someone’s character in the present tense. In its most vindictive form, this kind of “research” is a crude and dangerous weapon. And all too many in the media are eager to wield it.
The Assault on Uplifting Material
Look at the latest attack on the besieged Green Book, which unexpectedly won the Golden Globe for Best Drama last weekend. After The Cut excavated 20-year-old quotes from the film’s director, in which he admitted to repeatedly exposing his penis to former cast and crew, editors across the web repurposed the news with grave, mysterious headlines like “Green Book Director Apologizes After Reports of Past Misconduct.”
But here’s the thing: The director of Green Book is Peter Farrelly of crude comedy connoisseurs The Farrelly Brothers and his whipping it out was the punchline of a two-person joke with his brother. It’s obviously inappropriate humor but it does not appear that anyone subjected to this joke was offended by it, including Cameron Diaz, who they apparently pulled it on before she was even cast. In fact, a variation of that exact joke is a big part of why There’s Something About Mary went on to gross $369 million at the box office.
Not causing offense to those in the line of fire isn’t an excuse, of course, a fact which Farrelly seemed to have recognized. Farrelly owned up to his behavior, issuing a statement to The Cut and others that read, “I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now. I’m deeply sorry.”
In the midst of the culture wars, however, it’s far more lucrative to shame Farrelly, to assume, as CNN does, that this wasn’t merely a joke but evidence of criminal predation; “sexual misconduct, veiled at the time as attempts at humor.”
A cynical part of me wonders if the enmity toward Green Book is actually because of its themes of understanding and reconciliation. Like last year’s baffling backlash to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Green Book appears to have been labeled problematic in part because it dares to dramatize the capacity for positive growth through characters who change their prejudicial attitudes.
As social norms have shifted in recent years, there has been a lot of righteous anger directed at Hollywood (and elsewhere). This anger can be channeled productively; #OscarsSoWhite helped articulate a box office-shattering hunger for films offering more diverse representation in front of and behind the camera. But it’s vitally important we monitor our collective indignation to ensure we don’t get swept into a mob mentality. There’s an industry of clicks eager to monetize our outrage by stripping context from comments, jokes, or behaviors and substituting it in favor of worst-case assumptions about someone’s character or beliefs.
But don’t take it from me, ask Kevin Hart.