The Left is veering uncomfortably close to the Right in its half-informed demonization of individuals and artworks, as response to Get Hard illustrates.
Get HardDirector: Ethan Cohen
Cast: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie
US Release Date: 2015-03-27
The moral flogging that’s greeted the release of Get Hard is less revealing of how movies have changed than of how we have. What was once accepted and ignored is now the target of pieces of writing like this one.
Chances are you’ve probably heard at least one media outlet’s despairing summary of the Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy by now. If not, I won’t sugarcoat it; there’s no way to make Get Hard sound innocent.
This is a movie about a racist white-collar millionaire (Ferrell) facing prison for tax evasion, who then, assuming that most black people in America have been incarcerated, hires his car wash’s manager (Hart) to show him preventative measures against getting raped by male inmates. In the terminology of social media/social justice age, this is what is termed “problematic”.
Let’s get this out of the way: Get Hard is an ugly experience. As reasonably as one can argue that it’s actually confronting prejudices of class, race and sexuality (and again, this is only arguable), the grotesque heaviness of the subject of prison rape complicates both the audience’s will to take it all in stride as well as critics’ dismissal that it’s demanding to be taken that way.
The truth is that Get Hard wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows ten years ago, but today, as much of the Left is veering uncomfortably close to the Right in half-informed demonization of individuals and artworks, it’s unacceptable.
Like many of the Nintendo Generation (born between 1977 and 1982), I’m offended by everything. Growing up in Canada, most children’s programming taught the value of sharing through the trope of adults talking to puppets. We all assumed that when our parents went to “work”, they were meeting with their own puppet friends, the same friends who came out again when we were sent to bed.
The political correctness of the '90s just seemed necessary. It never hurt the career of anyone who wasn’t Andrew Dice Clay or Rush Limbaugh, and those guys were destructive relics, so much so that if you had been using the term "PC" over the past 15 years, it was a pretty sure sign of a bigoted agenda. Considering people's feelings is just the right thing to do.
This is why mainstream culture in the aughts seems to me, even in retrospect, so completely beguiling. It was a notably lawless age for media entertainment, a decade so anti-human it allowed for Bumfights and the commercial success of torture porn. The '00s were also a time when film comedy had a routinely privileged nastiness to it. With the George W. Bush presidency being bookended by Freddy Got Fingered and Role Models, both interesting examples of ‘00s shock value comedy, there was a furor in the air, an feeling that shit wasn’t right, and we were plunging further into doom.
The Obama era is more about how to rectify such social ills. But while this is a definite improvement in terms of inclusivity and positivity, as well as in condemning prevalent hateful attitudes and the bigotry of non-representation, we’ve covertly become hypercritical of transgression. Compassion and forgiveness, once defining components of leftist ideology, are buried by our need to react rather than heal. Feedback is instant, so comedy is fearful. Everyone wants to be “a good person”, and movies like Get Hard matter only insofar as we can define ourselves against them.
This evolution of our attitudes is most apparent by how difficult it’s become to watch only slightly older movies through 2015 eyes. I screened Mike Judge's 2006 film Idiocracy, co-written by Get Hard director Ethan Cohen, last week for several friends who had never seen it before. One expressed discomfort with the movie's repeated use of the expletive “fag”. Context only mattered so much; the (white male) lead in Idiocracy is transported to a dumbed down future where the prevailing fratboy culture perceives his heightened intelligence as effeminate. Judge is clearly making fun of the type of people who would denigrate others through such homophobic language. My friend isn’t wrong, of course; she’s been sensitized by internet culture, and there’s progress in recognizing when something hurts others, regardless of its initial satirical intent.
History has made us aware that, contrary to any George Clooney Oscar speech about how Hollywood is on the leading edge, mass entertainment often lags behind cultural enlightenment. Shameful examples of blackface taint even the post-Civil Rights era, and it’s prudent to not take such offenses in silence. The struggle now, as it faces comedies like Get Hard, is different. The conversations on what’s potentially harmful or healing have ceased. It's as simple as this: Get Hard is vile, because the internet said so.
Dismissal can be a survival mechanism. Last summer, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was met by box office failure and reviews mentioning that its attitudes were misogynistic. However, the original Sin City from 2005 is every bit as retrograde. Additionally, many of these same critics now espousing their sensitivity to A Dame to Kill's sexism liked the original film back in 2005. The same brand of misogynistic dialogue and amoral graphic mutilation didn't cause a stir just shy of ten years ago. It's incredible how prevailing cultural attitudes have changed so much in only a handful of years. If you ever enjoyed the first Sin City, try watching it today; it’s difficult to make it beyond the 45-minute mark for these reasons.
Literary legend and occasional social media pariah Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted that the scene of Jack Nicholson slapping Faye Dunaway completely soured her most recent viewing of Roman Polanski's noir Chinatown. The Twitter crowd that previously scolded Oates upon misunderstanding a point she was making about patriarchal world religions mistreating women quickly put Chinatown in their crosshairs.
Sometimes we look away if it’s an artist whose work we still consume and enjoy. Collectively, society seems to have an unspoken agreement to never acknowledge that there’s a 2008 Katy Perry song called “Ur So Gay”.
What brought on this cultural shift? How many of us really care about these issues, and how many of us just say we do for our social advantage?
That question is impossible to answer without offending a whole bunch of people. I want to believe everybody’s best intentions, but there is a problem here. There isn't a higher proportion of intelligent people now than there was before. Meanwhile, the internet has expanded the public forum and deepened our loneliness and longing for human connection. For that, we seek groups that will take us. Our perceived openness to diversity has maybe shifted its aim, but hasn’t impacted our longstanding problem of inadequate empathy.
Humans, particularly in the Western world, still believe in black and white notions of good and evil. They're comforting. They're engrained in our genome. This basic moral division is why the most successful films have clearly defined heroes and villains, and it will always be why Michael Bay’s films are more popular than David Lynch’s. We’ve widened our net of what groups are acceptable, but we’re still failing to see others as complex individuals, made up of at times contradictory shades of grey.
There’s no nuance in the condemnation of Get Hard. Like people who become targets in internet pile-ons, there’s a movement to define it by only its worst instincts. But why are we so confident of its malice? What Get Hard is attempting to say about cultural prejudice, and with what degree of success, is less important than its easy function as an object of derision.
Broken down on its most basic terms, Get Hard is about how Will Ferrell learns how to stop acting like a stereotypical elitist white man and learns to act like a stereotypical impoverished black man. That sounds awful, because it’s easier to describe it so reductively, but there’s a simple, undeniable sense of inclusivity to that character arc. Cheap jokes and easy shots abound, yet the film is told largely through Ferrell’s subjective sheltered bigot perspective. His worldview expands, even if in limited ways and through gags that rely on prejudicial attitudes in their audience. This isn’t positive, exactly, but that doesn’t make it completely destructive, either.
Male prison sex has been an awful comedy crutch, even appearing unquestioned as the premise of the 2006 Bob Odenkirk comedy Let’s Go to Prison, and just last year in homopanic-heavy 22 Jump Street. To put it mildly, it's not an inherently funny subject, and Get Hard does nothing to make it seem less than repulsive. (I myself watched most of the film through a mildly disgusted scowl.) The trick is that through that intensely unpleasant focus, the panicked comedy of Get Hard actually makes prison rape feel serious and disturbing.
Rest assured, this is not to excuse the film. I’m not even recommending it. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight a hostile, reactionary habit that’s overtaken our responses to pop culture. Get Hard is a hard act to swallow in that it’s clearly about issues of race and class, even as it’s openly sexist and too often conflates the fear of male rape with homophobia, as though they were the same issue.
So, ultimately, we opt to accept none of this. Coincidentally, Ferrell’s criminal charge results in the whole world turning against him, denying his humanity like the recipient of internet shaming, condemned as thoroughly as the film of which he’s the subject.
Get Hard never feels subversive, but its shocked-dismissal calls to question whether there’s room for real transgression in today’s climate. Where would filmmakers who make personal observations on society, who have things to say and to satirize, and who risk upsetting moral standards by deepening our acceptance of individual neuroses, be able to stand? The culture on both left and right has become condescending and condemnatory. The smartest among us have learned it’s easier to avoid social risk and ignore the political opposition altogether.
We’re terrible at talking to one another, and social media has only highlighted and facilitated this. We make no effort to “know our audience”, to try and relate by learning to speak kindly and persuasively to those with whom we disagree. We’re raging without a vision, when what we really need an end-goal of unity. There’s an irony in becoming more aware of injustice while conversely learning to hate one another, painting the world as an idiocracy of allies and enemies.
The left is at a critical juncture. Either it acts or just reacts. Either it takes charge or remains eternally judgmental.
As for Get Hard, it just kinda sucks.
Mark Palermo co-wrote the 2012 theatrical teen horror sci-fi comedy Detention, distributed by Sony Pictures. He is a screenwriter, filmmaker and journalist, currently residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia.