Kevin Hart this month withdrew from hosting the 91st Academy Awards following the unearthing of past homophobic tweets and jokes. Jason Okundaye discusses the blacklash, the sense of betrayal and how for black LGBTQ+ people, it’s more than “just a joke”
Content note: This article contains uncensored homophobic slurs, links to homophobic comedy videos and discusses violence towards LGBTQ+ people.
I still remember when I first watched Tongues Untied, a documentary film which is seminal to the construction and archiving of black gay male identity. I was confronted with a scene in which Eddie Murphy performs a stand-up routine about “faggots”, taken from his 1983 comedy special ‘Delirious’. I’d always enjoyed Eddie Murphy, from slapstick comedy like The Nutty Professor, and his electric performance as Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls – until then I had been ignorant to his homophobia, and the skit shook me.
Something constantly absent from discussions following revelations of homophobia from black public figures, is the emotional impact this has for black LGBTQ+ people. To learn that the black entertainers and comic figures we’ve grown up to love and celebrate have contributed to violence perpetuated towards us, fosters pain and a deep sense of betrayal.
Comedy can be of both political and emotive value. Comedy has, for black people, been an art form through which we can mock white establishments, and punch up at the racially oppressive powers which have subjugated us. Humour is a long-standing survival strategy for marginalised communities – it provides us with hope, (fleeting) feelings of victory, and allows us to collectively reflect on the highs and lows of the black experience.
“But what happens when comedy punches down? What does it mean when the butt of the joke isn’t structural oppressive power, but the most vulnerable?”
Comedy, dark comedy in particular, does also employ shock. Chris Rock – whose comic skits consistently evoke the African American experience – caused controversy this year in his Netflix comedy special Tamborine, where he said:
“I want to live in a world with real equality. I want to live in a world where an equal amount of white kids are shot every month.”
Cue, of course, the onslaught of those committed to misunderstanding, who protested that Rock “wants white kids dead”. But what Rock does is make a clear point about police brutality; in these lines he exposes the emptiness of ‘equality’, pushed by liberals as a substitute for justice. He emphasises the shock a white audience may feel in the casual suggestion of white kids being shot dead every month, which is the reality for young African American people.
But what happens when comedy punches down? What does it mean when the butt of the joke isn’t structural oppressive power, but the most vulnerable? Household black comedic names like Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac, and Kevin Hart, the recent subject of controversy, have historically based portions of their comedy on attacking “faggots”. Kevin Hart this month withdrew from hosting the 91st Academy Awards following the unearthing of past homophobic tweets, and comments made in 2010 movie Seriously Funny.
In these tweets Hart refers to someone as a “fat fag”, states that another person’s profile picture “looks like a gay billboard for AIDS”, and states that if he caught his son playing with a dolls’ house he would “break it over his head”. In the 2010 movie, he states that one of his “biggest fears” is his son being gay. Seriously Unfunny. The number of straight people who have voiced their annoyance at “Social Justice Warriors” and “the ALPHABET crew” (hilarious) for backlash against his tweets has been unsurprising. The consensus as always is that we should just “learn to take a joke”, with many wishing they could turn back the clock 30 years before “PC culture ruined comedy”.
“When we protest against this kind of violent comedy and the nature of these jokes, we often hear the argument that comedy is a free for all and shouldn’t have limits.”
The names Giovanni Melton, Anthony Avalos, Gabriel Fernandez, and Jamel Myles are just a few examples of why men gloating about how they’ll torture their gay sons for being effeminate will never be funny, and why “comedy” will never be a justification. Inhumane treatment of LGBTQ+ children functions as a form of terrorism within the home, which results in children dying at the violent hands of their parents, or taking their own lives as their only escape from suffering. The AIDS crisis, which all but wiped out a generation of gay men and trans women in particular, is why cisgender straight people cracking jokes about AIDS will never be funny, especially since an HIV epidemic persists in the USA, with its main victims being black gay men.
When we protest against this kind of violent comedy and the nature of these jokes, we often hear the argument that comedy is a free-for-all and shouldn’t have limits. I’m certainly someone who supports the idea that comedy should stretch limits and shock, as my Chris Rock example has shown. In fact, the AIDS crisis did produce comedy about AIDS, by AIDS activists who were dying from the disease. AIDS activists Tom Shearer and Beowulf Thorne enmeshed the genres of tragedy and comedy in the zine Diseased Pariah News when they included the graphic “AIDS Barbie’s New Malibu Dream Hospice” on the back cover of one issue. Shearer hoped to approach “the plague of the century from the angle of humour”, and dark comedy in this dark time became a way for people living with HIV and AIDS to find joy, hope and community, even in the face of imminent anguish and death. But this form of comedy is clever and serves a purpose.
“Even though straight people seem to think we’re celebrating, it is not a victory for black LGBTQ+ people that Hart stepped down from the Oscars and got dragged on Twitter”
What is clever, or purposeful, about the suggestion of smashing a dolls’ house over a child’s head? And why are people so upset about the loss of such cheap jokes which normalise violence and brutality against LGBTQ+ children? Is it because the jokes actually serve a purpose to them – to validate their own homophobia and justify their plans to abuse their own future children? What this controversy has done is reminded black LGBTQ+ people that the same comedic and artistic forms which empower us to challenge white supremacy, can be turned on us at any time to degrade and endanger us further.
I could have used this piece to discuss Hart further, his self-victimisation, his refusal to apologise, and his bizarre invocation of Martin Luther King, but it would be a waste of energy. Kevin Hart will be fine. His career won’t suffer. There are many fans who will not only have backed Hart through this controversy, but probably invest even further in his success because they don’t want to see “cancel culture” win.
Even though straight people seem to think we’re celebrating, it is not a victory for black LGBTQ+ people that Hart stepped down from the Oscars and got dragged on Twitter. We have had to endure shit jokes and the careers of rich straight black men be given priority over our lives and safety. The duty, as ever, is on us to forgive, forget, and shut the fuck up. We are sadly reminded that there are black children who will face racist violence outside, and homophobic and transphobic violence at home and within our ‘communities’. Hart has enough money, privilege and support to retreat into luxury until this blows over, but for black LGBTQ+ children there is little by way of refuge.