Get Hard hardly gets the stereotypes it tries to roast

James King (Will Ferrell) is being hugely racist here, and is put in mortal peril for his ignorance. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

If you don’t know what people mean when they talk about casual racism, check out Get Hard.

After James King (Will Ferrell) is framed for embezzlement and insider trading and sentenced to 10 years in maximum security, he offers $30,000 to his building’s in-house car washer Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart), who he assumes has been to prison because he’s black, to train him to protect himself during his 30 day grace period.

This movie puts casual racism and homophobia on display in two settings — both overtly with a supremely naive main character, but also subvertly with amorphous masses of stereotype-affirming black, Hispanic and gay people.

In its overt setting, the movie actually does what it sets out to do — make fun of people who still hold King’s worldview. There’s a difference between having a racist main character and being racist as a piece. Similarly, there’s a difference between homophobia and fear of being raped in prison. King is hopelessly ignorant, and the film punishes him for it. In the scene where he offers Lewis the job, he actually becomes the butt of the joke, calmly and condescendingly explaining his assumption while Lewis calls him out. In what turns out to be the movie’s graphically best scene, it actually goes to great lengths to illustrate the characters’ class divide with a well-shot opening credits montage. While there’s more to both actors than this, the film even has the tallest white and shortest black comic actors ever to further illustrate the gap visually.

But despite the film consciously lampooning King for his views, it can’t seem to string a sketch together that doesn’t rely on stereotypes. In one scene, Lewis hops around the screen playing a Mexican prisoner, and he plays him less as a person and more as a taco with all the fixin’s. He plays a black prisoner in the same scene as a similar stereotype.

This shot of King and Lewis’ first onscreen encounter is part of a well-shot opening sequence that graphically shows the power disparity between white and black. The jokes needed to go in another direction, but first-time director Etan Cohen does an OK job with this movie.

Many scenes are populated with gang-bangers, both black and white; King’s all-Mexican gardening crew, the only Hispanics we see in the film; and a gaggle of gay men at a hookup scene, similarly the movie’s only gay representation. And while Lewis makes a big point out of how wrong-headed the racist biker gang is — #notallwhites, the movie disclaims — there is no such indication for the fists full of black, Hispanic and gay people who are uniformly drug-dealing murderers, landscapers who speak limited English and Godless souls in constant search of a one-night stand.

This is how works of art can be casually racist. It doesn’t explicitly promote one race as better than another, but it uses negative racial stereotypes as shorthand to tell the story. It’s subtly endorsing the stock black/Hispanic/gay population that it uses as the actual black/Hispanic/gay population.

The movie’s South By Southwest premiere two weeks ahead of release reveals the broad reaction to this movie. The arena full of hipsters the had $700 to spare for a few movies per day immediately called the movie “racist as fuck” to first-time director Etan Cohen’s face, but mass audiences spending $6-$10 seem OK with it. It’s one of those things that gets worse the more attention you pay it, so it serves as all right background noise, but not as something a person would pay to see and absorb and dissect.

It’s a moderately funny movie that tries to be funny about race but doesn’t realize that it hurts more then it helps, and my reaction is similar to meeting a person who tries to be funny about race but doesn’t realize he’s being racist. I want to forgive the movie because it means no harm/doesn’t know any better, but at a certain point those jokes just aren’t OK anymore.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. There’s a magic potion that makes you forget The Phantom Menace. It’s called bleach. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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