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How Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions is walking the walk in building Black power in Hollywood

HartBeat Productions’ approach to finding ideas relevant to Black culture—and then global culture—offers a vision for the future of a more equitable entertainment business.

How Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions is walking the walk in building Black power in Hollywood
[Photo: Erik Witsoe/Unsplash]

Kevin Hart’s HartBeat productions turned 10 last year.

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In that decade, it went from fledgling entertainment company to transforming Hart into a mega movie star and then a Hollywood power player.

The difference is, Hollywood power players actually get to green-light projects. To date, HartBeat has divisions devoted to TV and film and digital and has developed such projects as Dave on FX and Don’t F**k This Up on Netflix, with a host of other projects in development for major studios. In an age where #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp have called attention to the predominantly white, male leadership in Hollywood—and now protests against police brutality and racism are calling out the entire world’s systemic racism (and Hollywood’s, too)—Hart’s company occupies a space that few people of color in the business get to experience: calling the shots.

His company has joined the ranks of Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and Tyler Perry studios as far as black-owned studios with that level of influence in Tinseltown.

Hart, of course, has not done it alone, but who he has brought along with him on the journey is important to addressing the predominantly white power structure and the projects it makes.

“I came up on the corporate side of it where there were no black people in most rooms, or very few black executives, and 90% of all the companies were definitely not run by black people,” says Bryan Smiley, HartBeat’s head of TV and film development. “So those circumstances are tough because you have to figure out how to—as in any creative industry—sell your vision to people who oftentimes culturally just can’t process it.”

Smiley, who previously served as vice president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, adds, “And when you don’t get that support because you’re the only one who understands, who’s going to speak up for you? I feel so blessed and fortunate to be at HartBeat, a company where we get it culturally right, and I know I’m amongst people who I don’t need to teach or walk through why ideas or artists are relevant to Black culture, when we have found time and time again that things that work for Black culture often work for global cultures.”

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Smiley was tight-lipped when asked about the projects they were working on—since the global pandemic has slowed down everyone’s progress—but of all the projects he could actually talk about somewhat, Uptown Saturday Night was number one. It sparked the most energy, with Smiley’s colleague, HartBeat president Pookey Wigington, shouting, “That’s my favorite right there, boy!” his Inglewood, California, twang emerging as he spoke.

Any 1970s black movie cinephile will most likely tell you that Uptown Saturday Night is a classic. The 1974 film, starring Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier (who also directed), Harry Belafonte, and more, was established as the anti-blaxploitation film. It’s a comedy about two everyday guys who get caught up in a night of shenanigans as they seek to reclaim a winning lottery ticket that was stolen from them after they were robbed at a nightclub. It was one of the top-grossing films of its time.

Although remakes can be tricky, if Uptown Saturday Night, the redux, is effective, it could set a new standard for Black ensemble casts. As depicted in Hart’s Netflix documentary Don’t F**ck This Up, we watch the star pitch Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) a costarring role in the upcoming movie.

“It had so many big pieces of talent, so many, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe’s’ were in it. I feel like there’s nobody bringing the stars of today together,” Hart tells Boseman. “I’ve taken the responsibility of trying to make that happen. How can I make this generation’s version of what that movie was for them at that time?”

Boseman left the deal open-ended, saying that while he wanted to work with Hart at some point, he still needed to think about it. Wigington and Smiley will neither confirm nor deny whether Boseman has agreed by now or not, but Smiley offers that they’re in “deep conversations about the cast”; that Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) will direct; that James Lassiter, Will Smith’s business partner, is producing; the screenwriter is secured; and that Warner Bros. is on board.

Uptown is a project that has made the rounds in Hollywood for years, and before HartBeat got ahold of it, it seemed like it would never get done. There are a lot of projects in Hollywood purgatory for several reasons, and considering the volume of awful movies that have been greenlit, it’s obvious that quality isn’t always a determining factor for what gets pushed to the forefront.

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One one hand, executives want to sell, so the potential to make money is an obvious motivator, but this also brings us back to Smiley’s point about when execs are so culturally clueless that they overlook a potential gold mine.

“For about 12, 13 years, no one could get it done. And when it came to our office, Kevin and I sat down and talked about the history of that project, what it represented to Black culture, and when Bryan comes in and sees that project, he just elevates the whole process to another level,'” says Wigington. “‘So, you’ve got these three Black executives looking at this culturally iconic Black film knowing the challenges that it has faced. But it took this collective group to bring this project to the forefront, and I think it’s going to be pretty amazing that we were able to bring it to fruition after it was shot down so many times.”

With the world headed into a new consciousness about the obvious multidimensionality of humanity, one hopes that we’ll be seeing more projects from varied perspectives.

But at HartBeat productions, they’re already ahead in the game, and invite you—yes, you—to get on board if you think you have what it takes. It was HartBeat Productions that produced Lil Rel’s first comedy special, RELevant, in 2015. It was considered one of Vulture‘s 10 best comedy specials that year. Even before HartBeat Productions existed, Hart gave Tiffany Haddish $300 to book a hotel room, because she was homeless during their early days on the comedy scene. That is HartBeat’s energy.

But only if you, as Wigington says, “do your homework.” What that means is, have potential, work on your craft, and do your research on the company you’re dealing with and how you should submit.

“We pride ourselves in being accessible and open. People have come to Pook with material, and we will look at it. People have literally stopped Kevin on the street and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I got this script from 2003, can you guys check it out?'” says Smiley. “We will look at things, and for people who are aspiring creators, it takes tenacity and a drive to fight for your vision, and fight for your voice. And if you’re loud enough, someone will hear you, and hopefully with these changes happening in our industry, in our world, more people will start to be open as we have been with young talent.”

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