On Friday, Ellen DeGeneres invited comedian Kevin Hart on her talk show to have what she described on Twitter as an “honest conversation” about the controversy surrounding his hosting of the Oscars.
An “honest conversation” might’ve discussed Hart’s past Tweets that resurfaced when he was announced as the Oscars host in December, where he insisted that he would beat up his son were gay. Granted, those Tweets were made years ago, so an “honest conversation” could’ve discussed how human beings grow and learn from their indefensible behavior, and that social media’s snapshot style often doesn’t account for that. Such a conversation could’ve then delved into what Hart has learned, about the passive and active forms of homophobia and restrictive masculinity that pose tangible physical threats to LGBT youth, especially within the Black community. Considering that this is a conversation moderated by Ellen DeGeneres, arguably the safest of spaces for celebrities who’ve done wrong, of course the conversation likely would’ve ended with her offering Hart absolution for his actions and maybe support in his quest to be the Oscars host again.
Within those parameters, Ellen DeGeneres’ sit-down with Kevin Hart was not an honest conversation. It was instead a stunningly tone-deaf rally that employed obfuscation and martyrdom in the service of a campaign to give Kevin Hart back a job that he vacated in a display of misspent hubris and vanity.
In the segment shared ahead of the episode’s airing, DeGeneres detailed her fairly extensive efforts on Hart’s behalf, including personally calling the Academy (a privilege apparently afforded to previous hosts) to figure out how Hart could be reinstated. In her recollection of her conversation with Academy reps, they wanted Hart to host this year, badly, and were seeking ways to make it to happen (one could assume that this appearance was part of that effort, but Hart is also promoting his upcoming film The Upside, so it could be merely advantageous timing).
It’s ironic, since Hart had a fairly straightforward path to the Oscars after the controversy. The Academy asked him to apologize for the Tweets and the harm they may have caused; Hart famously refused via Instagram and stepped down from the gig. Instead of apologizing for the Tweets (he has addressed them in the past, but his apology is lukewarm at the very best), he decided to cast himself as both martyr and victim at the altar of political correctness (rendered moot when apologized very shortly after). It’s a role that DeGeneres recasted him in for this interview. She emphatically lamented how “haters” were responsible for him losing the Oscar gig, and she allowed him to recount the trauma of the “attack” that was, in reality, people holding him accountable for his homophobic past. It was a past that he could’ve chosen to resolve by apologizing and taking responsibility (as the Academy asked), but he didn’t, and it is disingenuous to shirk his accountability for his choices and pass the blame elsewhere. Mischaracterizing legitimate criticism as mindless mob tactics only serves to reinforce the belief that Hart’s past actions weren’t as harmful as they were, and that the feelings of those directly and indirectly harmed – particularly those who identify as LGBT – aren’t valued. It’s sad, but not entirely surprising, for Hart to participate in such subterfuge; it’s hugely disappointing and a colossal misstep for DeGeneres.
The most egregious part of this conversation was what wasn’t said, or was briefly glossed over. Assuming Hart genuinely felt remorse for his past words, why not engage him in how and why? There has long been the need for a mainstream conversation about implicit, passive homophobia – seemingly casual comments, jokes and ideas that are steeped in deeply rooted fear, hatred and distrust of queerness – and this was as perfect opportunity as any to kick it off. DeGeneres herself has been the victim of explicit homophobia, which shuttered her career for a decade after she publicly came out on her sitcom in 1997, and she could’ve led with some authority a meaningful dialogue about how more insidious forms can be just as harmful. Hart could’ve explained how he came to realize joking about abusing his hypothetical gay son was unacceptable, either through personal experience or knowledge he’s acquired in the years since. DeGeneres and Hart should’ve discussed how LGBT youth are at a significantly higher risk of violence, and how Hart’s jokes ultimately contribute to that. Engaging in that dialogue would’ve made this obvious image rehab tour stop worthwhile. It could’ve been a teachable moment. Instead, DeGeneres dedicated a measly couple of sentences in her pontification before returning to Hart’s deification, reminding audiences that she was “sensitive” to these complex issues because she is a lesbian. The only sensitivity was shown to Hart, who at least had the decency to remain fairly stoic and even a bit embarrassed. If Hart really had learned from his past mistakes, neither he nor DeGeneres gave him the opportunity to show it (the less generous possibility is that he doesn’t think his comments were wrong at all, accusations of homophobia be damned).
Ellen’s interview was always going to be pure pop theater, a blatant attempt to curry favor for Hart and help this scandal blow over quickly enough to not impact the box office performance of his newest film. A successful case could’ve been made for her support of his reclaiming the Oscars host role. Unfortunately, shamefully, her efforts have only highlighted Hollywood’s hypocritical refusal to hold to account problematic, and in many cases dangerous, behavior. It is a pattern that allowed Kevin Spacey to make that heinous and strange Christmas Eve video within hours of being indicted on sexual assault charges, or Louis C.K.’s re-emergence in comedy, or purported comeback plans for Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and other men exposed by the #MeToo movement. Kevin Hart’s past rhetoric may not be as visceral as sexual abuse, but it reflects attitudes and actions that frequently result in physical and psychological harm. His contributions to this toxic environment require apology and genuine acts of contrition, or at least an exhibition of his education and growth. It is work that Hart seems unwilling to do, and DeGeneres has effectively ensured he never has to. With her seal of approval, Hart can now wave off genuine concerns as jealousy from the “haters”.
Ellen DeGeneres has every right to “forgive” Kevin Hart, for herself. If they had some deep, heart to heart conversation in private where they discussed homophobia, and she’s satisfied, great. She even has the right to want Kevin Hart to be reinstated as host of the Oscars. However, her inability to recognize the troubling underpinnings of his past and his present responses to it, and her efforts to fast track his public absolution without the necessary public work, are a huge disservice to the short strides being made towards acknowledging marginalized perspectives. It wasn’t her right to decide that Hart had done enough, when he really did nothing at all, and then force feed that narrative to the masses. What could’ve been a genuine step forward for Hart ended up tarnishing both of them, all to reclaim a job he, once again, quit.
The unearned victimization, the misdirection, the arrogance; there isn’t much room left for honesty.