‘Get Hard’ director Etan Cohen trying to smash racial stereotypes

Etan Cohen makes his directorial debut on Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy

First-time director Etan Cohen’s movie “Get Hard,” starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, made quite the splash during its polarizing SXSW festival premiere. During the panel discussion a heckler accused Cohen of making a racist film. It poses the question: Is it OK to laugh at a film that’s willing to poke fun at racial stereotypes for the sake of comedy?

In “Get Hard,” which hits theaters on Friday, Ferrell plays an optimistic businessman who’s framed for a white-collar crime. In order to survive his prison sentence, he enlists Hart’s character to be his prison guru after assuming that he’s a former hardened criminal. Hart, a hard-working family man, takes advantage of this scenario and high jinks ensue.

Before the film’s SXSW premiere, Cohen spoke with amNewYork about crafting a careful balance for “Get Hard.”

Was this always going to be your vehicle to direct?

It felt like a great opportunity to not just do something that was going to be incredibly funny, but also what gets me really excited is a movie that can also sneak in some social and political satire. Everyone has seen these movies where it’s about race where a black guy helps a white guy, but with this movie we flipped the idea where Kevin has no idea what prison is, and Will just assumes he’s in that dynamic. The fact that he makes that stereotypical decision is what enables Kevin to take advantage of him.

This film deals with racism and how often society appropriates culture. Where did that influence come from?

That was something I put in the script because I thought it was really important. It’s so easy for these types of movies to dwell in those stereotypes, but here I wanted to say something serious about it. Fortunately you have Will in that ridiculous outfit, which kind of gives us a fig leaf to say something serious which is sincere but at the same time you’re laughing at what Will looks like.

Is it hard to balance saying something important while still keeping the comedic rhythm?

There’s a quote that I love from Alexander Payne, which is, “Tone wasn’t built in a day,” and it’s really true. You spend a lot of time in production shooting things, and you have a certain idea of the tone, but in production you kind of discover it. We always felt like the movie should be grounded, that it should take place in the real world. Our characters are in America as we know it. Kevin said we have to take on these stereotypes head on and explore them and show how dumb they are.

NIKI CRUZ | Special to amNewYork