Kevin Hart: A conversation on justice in America

Kevin Hart: A conversation on justice in America
Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday in police custody near the convenience store. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)

As one of comedy’s true contemporary superstars and a huge professional success by any measure, Kevin Hart seems like a perfect candidate to write a self-help book. 

Or rather, record one: the new Audible Original “The Decision: Overcoming Today’s BS for Tomorrow’s Success,” in which Hart — a man who has dealt with his share of largely self-induced controversy — shares some of what he has learned about positive thinking and handling negativity. 

His just-shy-of-over-the-top optimism arrives at a particularly dispiriting moment. (We spoke for the final time as the protests over the killing of George Floyd continued to intensify.) 

So, right now, what does Hart feel he can offer? 

“As a guy who has walked through the fire,” he said, “I know what it’s like to be burned, and I know what it’s like to take care of the burn and heal.”

Q: Having a positive mind-set is the big topic of your audiobook, and you talk about it in a way that feels applicable to, say, workplace or relationship problems. But what about when the issues people are facing are more systemic? Is it even possible to apply your thinking to the national atmosphere over the past few weeks?

A: When you talk about the mental preparation — you see this thing just poke you and poke you and poke you. There’s a snapping point, and at a snapping point you fight back. This is a moment where it doesn’t matter how patient you’ve been. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve turned the other cheek — it’s not going to stop until there is pushback. 

The fact that I’m upset, that I’m this bothered — I’m a guy that tries my best to be on a nice, levelheaded plane, but we’re talking about another man who was murdered by cops. Slow-murdered with a knee on his neck! 

At this point, the highest level of anger and frustration should be attached to this, and if you don’t understand that or don’t see it, the only thing that I can say is that you’re a part of the problem 

Q: You posted on your Instagram the other day about how the media is focusing on the wrong narratives by paying so much attention to the looting. Where does the focus need to be?

A: From the media standpoint, the conversation should be about the 'why' of what’s happening. The why is social injustice. The why is racism. The why is hatred that exists in our world and the people on the receiving end of it. 

We’re not in a position where we can ever feel as if we’re equal because of things like this, and we’re never going to have that feeling unless a narrative is pushed to fix the system. That’s the conversation, but we need the help of white America to say the things that we’ve been saying. 

When you guys say it, it brings a different volume: 'Oh, my God, this must be real. This must be a problem'. When all the news outlets are screaming the same message, now that message has no choice but to be heard. And the narrative that I would love to see people be more consistent with is: 'This is death number what? How many were unarmed, defenseless black men? How many are shot, choked?' At some point, the world has to go, 'We’ve got to start taking responsibility'. The media has to be a part of that.

Q: Politicians shape these narratives, too. What would you want Donald Trump to be saying?

A: That’s beating a dead horse. That’s a waste of time for me to discuss or have an opinion on because we’ve seen that movie and how it ends. Right now you have to force the hand of the politicians around you. Why not go to each mayor? 

Cities should be fighting with us for systemic change. That’s where you start. When you’ve got a collective group of people that are saying the same thing, you’re stronger. It can’t be in disarray. It can’t be not as one. We need the world to simply decide what’s right versus what’s wrong. That’s it.

Q: What do you hope to see come out of the protests?

A: I hope people feel like their wants and needs have halfway been met. I mean justice, OK? Not just for the one officer, but for the other three that were there as well. They all need to be thrown in jail. 

After that, I’d like to see laws put in place that protect people against the police, where there’s severe consequences for these senseless acts. They can’t just continue to happen. There has to be severe consequences, the same way that there are for civilians. 

If I got four or five friends with me, and if I do something, we’re all going to jail. They’re going to lock us up and ask questions later. It’s like the law is for you when it’s convenient. But it’s never convenient for us.

Q: You’ve always stayed away from political material in your comedy. Does a situation like this make you reconsider that approach?

A: No. This isn’t a laughing matter for me. This isn’t something that I choose to make material out of. This is serious. My voice has to be used correctly. 

We’re talking about a 400-year problem. You’re talking about something that doesn’t want to go away, and people keep treating it as if it’s nonexistent. I don’t understand why everybody is so afraid to address the elephant in the room. It’s shocking to me. You’re witnessing white power and white privilege at an all-time high. 

For those who say they don’t understand that, or don’t see it, or are confused as to what that means, I’m going to say you’re a part of the problem.

Q: I know that before the pandemic, you were working on new stand-up material. When that hit, did you have to go back to the drawing board?

A: Well, my comedy has always been evergreen because it’s about me. I’ve never really discussed topical things. I’ve always looked at that as something that can be dated. 

Talking about myself, my family, my life changes always puts me in a position to have an audience that can go, 'Oh, my God, I get that'. So the new material was all about my perspective on life now and being OK with old age.

Kevin Hart: A conversation on justice in America
Film producer Will Packer, left, actor-comedian Kevin Hart, center, and rapper Ludicris applaud during a memorial service for George Floyd at North Central University, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd died on May 25 as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck, ignoring his cries and bystander shouts until he eventually stopped moving. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Q: How old are you again?

A: 40. Life after 40, that’s what I’m comfortable talking about. Am I going to lose some people 40 and under? Maybe. But I can’t talk about the club, and I can’t talk about drugs, and I can’t talk about fights and craziness. I don’t experience that anymore. I can only talk about what I know.

Q: Along those lines, how is it being at home? You were supposed to be off filming a movie.

A: There is a gift in every curse. Sitting down, being with your loved ones — this is happening for a reason. We don’t know what that reason is, but maybe it’s time to take steps backward so that we can take steps forward. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate life and not just for me and my family. Maybe for us all.

Q: When you say that maybe the pandemic happened for a reason, do you mean in a larger theological sense?

A: Yes. I’m not saying that like, go out and infect people and put this virus in the world. I’m saying you’ve got to look behind the cloud and realize there’s sun. It’s an opportunity for people to band together. Now you’ve got a reason to go, hey, we’re now in the history books in 2020, experiencing one of the biggest catastrophic pandemics. 

This will be taught to kids in years to come and how we come back from it will be a major discussion. If we choose to come back correctly, it can be heroic. If the economy goes down to this crazy level, then the bounce-back from it can be massive. Success stories can be written. You’ve got to look at it that way, and that’s a way that sometimes we are afraid to look.

Q: One theme of your audiobook is reframing negative things in positive ways. But how do we make sure it’s rational and objective and not blindly optimistic or self-serving when we do that?

A: When you talk about negativity, it’s all subjective. Everything is subjective. There is nothing that cannot be argued. I’m simply giving you my insight from how I dealt with things. If you don’t agree with things, that’s OK. 

If somebody doesn’t agree with your talent, if somebody doesn’t agree with your dream or your wants, it doesn’t make them a hater. It makes them a person who thinks differently. So in my audiobook I’m showing you how to sidestep and counterpunch.

Q: But maybe sidestepping and counterpunching are ways of avoiding criticism rather than understanding it. Do you believe you’re always giving proper consideration to negative things? For example, I know you’d rather not deal with online critics, but what if a criticism someone makes of you online has some truth to it?

A: I don’t feed in to people on the internet who have a bunch of bad shit to say. The bad shit is a lot louder than the good shit. The bad shite seems like it’s written in a bigger font. 

It’s not, but you don’t see the person who says 'I love you'. You see the person who says 'fuck you, you untalented shit'. Why didn’t you choose to see the 'I love you'? It’s because you have learned to let the negative be louder. 

It’s just like in the world today: You can’t tell me one good thing that was on the news. You’re not trained to remember it. I bet you the news might have something on there that you would consider stupid. Like, a dog was found in Mississippi that was lost for three weeks. Then the family got their dog back. You wouldn’t remember that. That’s something to understand: There’s a lot of bad, but there is some good if you choose to look for it. My book is about opening up your eyesight to see both sides.

Q: Meaning what exactly?

A: The media is pushing fear. Where’s the compromise? We know the catastrophic consequences of coronavirus, but we’re not hearing any conversation of the good. 

Like in Italy, you see what they did with people singing on the balconies. Why didn’t the news outlets talk about people in Italy banding together to uplift each other? Why is more deaths the only thing being pushed? We never see a counter to the negativity, and that’s the problem.

Q: Something about how you equated negativity with subjectivity a minute ago seems as if it might make it hard to distinguish valid criticism from “opinion.” How do you tell the difference?

A: If somebody has something to say and it’s not just opinion — it’s based on their track record — then that’s something you should listen to, whether you apply it or not. You can listen and then make a decision for yourself. I’m willing to talk, but I’m also willing to shut up and receive what you have to say.

Q: The way you were talking about the internet and the media’s negative slant makes me wonder how much your attitude about all this was influenced by last year’s Oscar-hosting controversy.

A: It’s not just last year. How many times have I fucked up?

Q: A couple.

A: You want me to go down the list? I know what it’s like to say, 'I got nobody else to blame but me'. I know what it’s like to believe in myself when nobody else did. I know what it’s like to fail and get back up and try again. I know what it’s like to lose shit that you worked hard for. 

I know what it’s like to have a team of people around you that are an example of what real love is. These things that I’ve been able to experience, the good and the bad. I think this is valuable information. So if I’ve got information that can be used by whomever, I’m going to do my part and give it. You don’t have to use it. You can tell me to go fuck myself.

Q: Even that — that somebody’s response to you could be “Go fuck yourself” — makes it seem as if you’re braced for conflict. Where does that come from?

A: It comes from me understanding reality.

Q: But who would say “Go fuck yourself” to what you’re saying?

A: Whoever. I’m OK when a door gets slammed in my face. I’m OK with the word no. I’m OK with 'that’s not good'. In my world of business and entertainment, I’m subjected to a high level of opinion. Everybody is not going to like my movies. Everybody is not going to like my stand-up comedy.

Q: Let me ask about your career. Your stand-up is the most specific expression of what you can do as an artist. You do that work, and you also do movies like the “Jumanji” sequel, which, and I don’t mean this at all as a slight, are obviously less about artistic expression and more about making a product designed to satisfy as broad a market as possible. How do you see those sides of what you do as coexisting?

Kevin Hart: A conversation on justice in America
A woman wears a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, reading "black lives matter," to a protest Sunday, June 7, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
A: My stand-up comedy does not grow and become global without my theatrical. I need universal appeal from the theatrical. I can put out hundred-million-dollar box-office movies domestically all day. “Jumanji” is seen all over the globe. 

So the more that I want to extend with stand-up, the more that I want to do movies that give me that global opportunity. It’s a conscious business decision to seek that. If things do not allow me to do that, then from a business side of it, you’re not uplifting my brand.

Q: Is stand-up what you find most fulfilling?

A: That’s what I love. That’s my therapy. That’s my muse. That’s where I’m the best version of myself in any form of entertainment.

Q: Earlier you said your new stand-up had to do with turning 40. Can you share what you’ve been thinking about?

A: There’s a high level of not caring that comes with 40. Sweat suits. Sweat pants. Hoodies. It’s all comfortable clothes. Different types of slippers and socks. It’s about being content with your decision-making ability. Like, at the younger age, I was the guy that always wanted to please. What do you need? OK, I’ll do it! You don’t realize that you need to be OK with you. 

You need to make sure that you’re giving yourself time. At the age of 40, that clicks in. 'Hey, let’s go here'. 'No. I don’t want to go'. 'Why not?' 'I have no desire to do that.' Why not?' 'Because I don’t. I don’t have to explain why'. 'Why don’t you want to go see the Grand Canyon?' 'Because I don’t need to see it'. 'Going fishing? Absolutely not'.

I’m OK now with saying what I will and won’t do and have no remorse for it. That’s 40.

Q: You’ve said that an old version of you died in that awful car accident last year, and a new one was born. What’s different about the new one?

A: The version of me that died felt invincible. You get to this level of fame and success, and you think you’re in control, and you’re not. My life could have been over. I could be paralyzed. And by that amazing man upstairs and a loving and supportive family, I was able to get back to myself and work on being better. 

In these trying times, when we’re dealing with what we’re dealing with — and this is bad — it could be worse. So finding reasons to be thankful and finding a bright light is what I know now to do.

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