Twenty years ago, an indie stoner flick set in South Central L.A. became the sleeper hit of the year, with a star-making performance from motormouth comedian Chris Tucker and a strong directorial debut for filmmaker F. Gary Gray. That movie, of course, was Friday, a tale of two friends hanging out all day on their front porch in the ‘hood. Friday is a modern comedy classic amongst Gen Xers and Millennials, a movie that’s still as quoted and quotable as it was in the mid-1990s.
Fast-forward to today. The Kevin Hart comedy The Wedding Ringer is poised to rake in close to $30 million in its opening weekend. That’s two strong January showings in a row for Hart, who had an even bigger hit last year with the formulaic buddy cop flick Ride Along. As far as black actors, he’s currently the cinematic king of comedy. But are his movies funny? Ringer features Hart doing his typical shtick—motormouthed jive that feels forced and raunchy jokes masquerading as “edgy.”
Hart’s success shouldn’t be slighted. He’s worked hard to get where he is. But it doesn’t feel like he’s where a comedian of his stature should be. Those now-infamous hacked emails from senior Sony exec Clint Culpepper included a dismissal of Hart after the star’s agent refused to tweet about last year’s Think Like a Man Too in the lead-up to the film’s release. “If he doesn’t do his normal routine, his film will not open as well and his brand will appear diminished and he will—in fact—be f***ing himself because we have his next 2 immediate films. I’m not saying he’s a whore. But he’s a whore.”
Hart dismissed the email controversy as “not that serious,” but it’s clear that those making the decisions have a certain view of who he is as a person and as an actor. While he hasn’t quite had the kind of hit that commands the sort of leverage of an Eddie Murphy, fans should hope that the funnyman isn’t happy to just get the big check while churning out dreck. His stand-up pairs his hyper-manic persona with his own perspective, it feels like he’s comfortably Kevin Hart on stage. His series The Real Husbands of Hollywood, also felt more like him doing what he does best. His humor benefits from it—similar to many great comedians who had difficulty transitioning successfully into feature films.
Now, of course—funny is entirely subjective. We can’t assume that everyone will laugh at the same gags and punchlines. But it seems that the biggest successes in black comedic films over the last several years have been fairly routine or mundane genre exercises that make money but make little-to-no impression. The Wedding Ringer (an obnoxious re-tread of “bromance” flicks like I Love You, Man and Hitch) has gotten lukewarm-to-dismal reviews. The mostly-panned Ride Along didn’t even try to avoid the kind of genre clichés that made buddy cop movies annoyingly rote by the late 1990s. The best modern comedies become imbedded in our collective culture—how many people can toss off a line from Anchorman with ease? How often do you still hear Tropic Thunder or Superbad references? When it comes to black comedy movies, it feels like there hasn’t been a film like that in a long time.
In 1995, Friday was just the latest in what could’ve been considered a Golden Age of African American comedy. In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy was the undisputed king of comedy in Hollywood. After breaking through on Saturday Night Live and becoming a superstar on the strength of hits like 48 Hours, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy parlayed his success into writing and directing films like Coming to America and Harlem Nights. It was noticeable that Murphy’s earliest films typically featured him as the only black face amongst the principal cast; while his late ‘80s films were decidedly “blacker.” Coming to America was about an African prince who travels to Jamaica, Queens, in search of a wife; Harlem Nights was a story about black bootleggers operating a Harlem speakeasy during Prohibition; Boomerang followed the romantic entanglements at a black advertising firm.
These films arrived just as other names such as Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) and Keenan Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!) were also making waves as important new voices in black comedy. Even famed director Spike Lee’s earliest films (She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze) were late ‘80s comedies.
On television, platforms such as HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and BETs Comic View gave rise to an entire generation of black standups. Everyone from the aforementioned Tucker to the late Bernie Mac to Dave Chappelle landed on the Def Comedy Jam stage. And luminaries like Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley first came to prominence hosting Comic View at various points in that show’s history. Fox launched Wayan’s hit sketch comedy show In Living Color, which was arguably as visible in pop culture during the early ‘90s as SNL, and the network was also home to Martin Lawrence’s ever-popular sitcom, Martin, which made him a household name and set the stage for his transition into films. After leaving SNL, Chris Rock’s HBO specials made him a legend. The voice matters.
Rock’s Top Five was a modest success and it found the comedy star writing and directing a project that felt decidedly like his own. His earliest films and experiences on SNL barely reflected his talent or his perspective. Most classic comedies aren’t just formulaic star vehicles; the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen clan has become successful largely because they’ve been able to showcase their specific point-of-view in their films. Rogen and Evan Goldberg write and direct many of their projects and Apatow has worked with both for over a decade; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have a working relationship that goes all the way back to their tenure on SNL.
SNL hasn’t just produced a bevy of white comedic superstar actors like Mike Myers and Bill Murray, it’s also launched several now-famous comedic writers like Larry David and Tina Fey. But that hasn’t really happened with black SNL alums. Rock included current cast members like Michael Che, Jay Pharoah, and Leslie Jones in Top Five because he doesn’t take for granted the shorter list of black success stories associated with that famed show. “I’m friends with all of those guys,” Rock said of his fellow black SNLers. “Yeah, there is only a fraction of us black guys from SNL. It’s like ‘Wow.’ It’s important to keep the relationship. I make sure I talk to those guys. I wish I could’ve gotten Eddie into this movie. I couldn’t get him out of the house! I definitely tried, I couldn’t get him. But the SNL thing is important to me.”
When it comes to Hart, he’s acknowledged that there’s certain things he won’t do in a film. While speaking to Power 105’s The Breakfast Club during the promo rounds for The Wedding Ringer, Hart made it clear where he draws the line: he’s not willing to play a gay character.
“I'm at a point where I want to take a chance, this role made sense, the story made sense, I may do it,” he explained. “You don't know what tomorrow holds. Once again, if I get to the point where I want to challenge myself in the business, and I'm all about the art, who knows if that's the right artsy piece that can get Kevin Hart an Oscar and show a different acting talent? But right now, it's not on the drawing board.”
It’s unfortunate that Hart has such an aversion to being seen in a gay role at this point in his career, but seems so eager to please in virtually any other kind of role he’s been offered. He’s been on a tear with several high-profile and successful films—but none of them feel like they’re his. He hasn’t been credited as a writer on his biggest films, and Hart always feels like the comic relief in someone else’s project. In his box office hits, he’s treated like a high-profile sidekick. Josh Gad and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting’s names are prominently next to his on the film posters for The Wedding Ringer; these aren’t two actors who are exactly household names. They certainly aren’t as well-known as Hart. It feels like Hollywood doesn’t really believe in this guy as an A-List actor.
But he’s become quite bankable, albeit on the back of several forgettable films. Cedric the Entertainer, in an interview with Rolling Out, touched on the frustration that many black comedy actors feel. “I have been able to prove myself as a producer. I wrote and created my TV series, Soul Man,” he said. “It’s going into the fourth season. Johnson Family Vacation was a movie that I produced and was able to show what I do, as far as putting an image out there and trying to tell a story and paint the picture…But mainstream Hollywood—when they see any black comedian, they want you to come in and be the comic relief.”
Richard Pryor was one of the most iconic and important stand-up comedians of all time, a fearless innovator who’s perspective was his greatest weapon. It’s any comic’s greatest weapon, really. But in the 1980s, as Pryor landed high-profile, mainstream Hollywood roles in films like The Toy and Superman III, the comedian with the biting perspective on race, class, sex and society was reduced to a bumbling goofball—the “comic relief” in a string of bad movies. He was as high-profile as ever, but he lost his voice. Kevin Hart is no Richard Pryor, but he could stand to learn from the legend’s Hollywood mistakes. It’s time for him to take the great leap forward as a comedic actor.
It’s time for Kevin Hart to take being funny a bit more seriously.