‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and the Rise of Hollywood’s Casual Racism

There’s a lot to like about Pitch Perfect 2. So why does it muddy itself with tone-deaf racial jokes? Worse, why is it part of an ugly trend in big Hollywood comedies?

Photo Illustration by Alex Williams/The Daily Beast

I enjoyed Pitch Perfect 2 so much I cried. I’m one of those people.

(Granted the bar is low for me. I cried during The Heat.)

The Bellas’ finale performance of “Flashlight,” an original song by Jessie J, was so emotionally and visually manipulative that I got goosebumps and teary eyes and loved every single second of it. So much of the movie was fun, too.

Anna Kendrick revisits her too-cool-for-school shtick, which is a little tiresome the second time around but still highly entertaining because Anna Kendrick has that unachievable relatable perfection thing going for her. There is a rival German a capella group, and they are hilarious. Snoop Dogg sings—sings—an earnest version of “Winter Wonderland.” Bless this movie.

There’s so much of the same harmony—shameless embracing of individuality, charismatic performances, Rebel Wilson—singing in Pitch Perfect 2 as there was in the original that it makes its biggest, discordant flaw almost unforgivable. Like Hot Pursuit and Get Hard before it this spring, the film is plagued by tone-deaf and, worse, unfunny racial comedy.

Audiences deserved better from a franchise that made its mark by having a fresh voice and satirical take on the stereotypes that so often define us. More, it doesn’t make sense for such laziness and off-putting writing to sour the experience of watching a film that there was already so much goodwill for.

Yet depressingly, the casual racism of the film is perhaps the biggest throughline in reviews of Pitch Perfect 2.

The biggest weakness of the movie is “race jokes that don’t pay off,” says Jessica Goldstein at Think Progress. “One new character is from Guatemala and, as far as I could tell, literally did not say anything that was not about human trafficking, cheating death, or other too-real hardships she left behind when she fled to America.”

This is true. Trying to misguidedly relate to her fellow Bellas by earnestly detailing how horrible life was for her back in Guatemala—“I had diarrhea for seven years,” for example—“it’s hard not come up with a reading of repeated jokes about kidnapping and border crossing that’s not, ‘Developing nations are hilarious hellscapes!’” says Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore.

The majority of these race jokes are presented as stand-up comedy bits from returning a capella commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins. In the first film, the duo provided a clever Best in Show-like satire of color commentary at competitive events. In this film, they just drop racially charged one-liners for comedy shock value—jokes so lazy and obvious they elicit eye rolls and groans instead of any laughs.

As Wilmore says, “The pair’s off-color cracks escalate into bits of bigotry without a punchline in sight other than offensiveness.”

Part of the backwards appeal of Pitch Perfect was the off-color comedy. It was gross and offensive on purpose. But lines about Ester Dean’s homosexuality or Hana Mae Lee’s Silent Asian Girl tendencies came from the film’s good-natured owning of stereotypes in order to them play them for proud comedy.

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Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy is probably the best example of the film as an empowerment message: take pride in your weirdness and of the base-level things that other people will define you by, and then throw it back in their faces. But more important than that, the jokes—even if intentionally uncomfortable with their racial bends—were funny.

“The movie’s off-color humor also doesn’t connect like it once did either,” says Rodrigo Perez at Indiewire of Pitch Perfect 2. “The casual racism, homophobia, and sexism might be tolerable if any of it was remotely funny, but none of it is.”

That flaw, unfortunately, seems to be a plague that’s spreading through Hollywood’s most recent big blockbuster comedies.

In Hot Pursuit, the star vehicle featuring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, the tone-deafness of the comedy was evident from the trailers alone, perhaps explaining why the box office haul was so miniscule.

The film itself kicks off with a terribly offensive transphobic gag, and does an odd job of objectifying star Sofia Vergara, considering that star is one of the film’s executive producers. But more than that, the film reduces her character to a one-note racial cliché.

According to S.E. Smith at Bitch Magazine, “While Vergara threw in a few withering comments about Latina stereotypes, perhaps designed to offset the fact that her character was a stereotype herself, they fall flat.”

We’re not saying that race can’t be used smartly as a tool for comedy. Sofia Vergara herself is an expert at just that on Modern Family each week. But there needs to be nuance and a point of view to the humor.

Hot Pursuit does not have that.

This isn’t an argument that Sofia Vergara should deny her Latin roots or not use her heritage and identity for comedy. But she deserves—and we deserve—to do it with some agency and responsibility. The worst example of all of this, however, is Get Hard, a film made all the more egregious for the lack of ownership its creative team takes in the offense that its comedy caused.

The film, starring Kevin Hart as a man charged with preparing Will Ferrell for the perils of an upcoming prison stint, attempts a satirical take on race, class, and the prison system—skewering all of it in the name of comedy. It failed.

“[Director Etan] Cohen repeatedly places himself and his performers on a tight rope between the fire and the frying pan,” The Wrap’s Inkoo Kang writes. “It’s a multiple balancing act that Cohen doesn’t have the grace, wit or sensitivity to pull off.”

A scene from "Get Hard."

Get Hard was called out for its racism back at its first screening at South by Southwest. A Los Angeles Times reporter, calling the film, “racist as [expletive]” asked Coen, “How nervous were you presenting this in front of a live audience being completely, absolutely and unapologetically . . . racist and hysterical at the same time?”

Cohen’s answer attempted to defend his film and alleged that he charged into the film’s racial issues with sensitivity. Producer Adam McKay, however, took a different route: he called the amount of outraged articles about it “lazy journalism.”

Its very premise is ripe for a sharp satirical take—a white 1 percenter assumes a hard-working black man is a criminal merely because of his color—but rather than use comedy to confront our ingrained and problematic social mores, the broad take on the topic instead merely offends. There’s a difference between acknowledging and then attacking our racial assumptions through comedy, and merely exploiting them.

(Get Hard’s homophobia, which Hart and Ferrell were directly asked about by Hitfix’s Louis Virtel and which they, essentially, laughed off, is a whole other story.)

Now with Pitch Perfect 2, a film that so many people liked the first time around because it seemed smart, also falling prey to this latest loathsome trend, the question is why?

This kind of humor—offensive comedy masked as shock-fodder and raunch—is woefully dated. Films exist now that tackle race with nuance and perspective and humor, last year’s Dear White People being the most obvious example.

No one wants to play the Outrage Police, and we’re copping to maybe playing up the offensiveness of Pitch Perfect 2, at the very least, in the mission of making a point. But it’s essential to expect more from these big Hollywood features if we ever hope to receive more from them. Mass appeal doesn’t have to mean lowest common denominator. Everything about Pitch Perfect 2 is broader than the original, but a comedy can be broad and still be both edgy and responsible.

This isn’t a matter of being too-P.C. or too sensitive. It’s a matter of having taste, and for there to be consequences for distasteful entertainment.

The rules of pop culture are different today than they were back when a ‘90s Adam Sandler comedy could make jokes like the ones in these films and get away with it. A move towards a Hollywood that finally normalizes diversity and champions representation is a challenging one, and one that will require active behavior, constant debate and conversation (like this one), and especially humor.

We just need to calibrate the pitch of it.