Is 'Joe Bell' Mark Wahlberg's 'Mea Culpa' for Arguable Hate Crimes?

Wednesday July 21, 2021

Mark Wahlberg in 'Joe Bell.'
Mark Wahlberg in 'Joe Bell.'  (Source:IMDb)

Is "Joe Bell" Mark Wahlberg's mea culpa for his arguable hate crimes 30 years ago? In Reinaldo Marcus Green's film, which releases Friday, the action star reaches for something different — playing a conservative man who sets off on a mission to fight homophobia by walking across the country and speaking against gay bullying. He is prompted to do so only after his gay son takes his own life, hence becoming his way of making amends. (The film is based on a true story.)

In his review for The Washington Post, however, Michael O'Sullivan points to the elephant in the room: how Wahlberg's own past haunts and undermines the film's earnest message. "'Joe Bell' tells a very specific story about martyrdom. In a way, though, it also feels like a tiny bid for redemption by Wahlberg, who was himself convicted of an assault, at age 16, against two Vietnamese men in 1988 Dorchester, Mass," O'Sullivan recounts. "The long-ago echo of that real-world attack — arguably another hate crime, for which the actor served 45 days — reverberates throughout what is ultimately the emptiness of "Joe Bell," like a call for forgiveness of another sort."

While Wahlberg was never convicted of attacking a gay person, he was involved in a number of crimes against minority groups as a teenager and served time for one of the many incidents.

His past came to light last year when the actor expressed his support for Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd, as per the Independent, which published a history of his assaults as a teenager and young adult.

"While living in Boston in the 1980s Wahlberg was twice charged for race-related hate crimes, serving time in jail for one of the attacks," the site recounted.

The article goes on to recollect when Wahlberg, at age 15, had thrown rocks at Black children on a school trip, injuring two young girls. Then, two years later, he attacked a Vietnamese man named Thanh Lam with a five foot wooden stick. During the assault, it was reported the actor had called the Lam a "Vietnamese f—king s—t."

"In the presence of two police officers," as per the criminal indictment, Wahlberg is quoted as admitting to the crime: "'You don't have to let him identify me. I'll tell you right now that's the mother—ker whose head I split open,' or words to that effect."

But his violent attacks didn't stop there.

As the New York Post recalled: "Shortly after attacking Lam, Wahlberg punched a man named Hoa Trinh in his eye — an eye that, according to various reports, Trinh then lost — though he later said he lost his eye serving in the South Vietnamese army.

"Back at the police station that night, Wahlberg kept ranting about 'g—ks' and 'slanty-eyed g—ks.' He was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to two years on felony assault, but served only 45 days."

Mark Wahlberg as Marky Mark in his Calvin Klein campaign.  

He still wasn't rehabilitated, though. Even after he became a celebrity as Marky Mark, his hip-hop persona, and as the hunky Calvin Klein underwear model, he went on to kick a man in the head so violently — while a friend held this man down on the ground — that his broken jaw had to be wired shut.

Wahlberg settled with his victim in 1993, before the case went to trial.

In an interview with ABC News in 2007, Wahlberg addressed his troubled past. "I did a lot of things that I regretted and I certainly paid for my mistakes," Wahlberg admitted at the time. "You have to go and ask for forgiveness and it wasn't until I really started doing good and doing right, by other people as well as myself, that I really started to feel that guilt go away. So I don't have a problem going to sleep at night. I feel good when I wake up in the morning."

So is "Joe Bell" part of Mark Wahlberg's attempt to assuage that guilt?

In 2014, he attempted to expunge his record for the second attack when he sought "a pardon for the second attack and have it wiped from his criminal record, saying that while his celebrity should 'in no way, shape or form' be a reason to grant it, he hoped his recent actions would show that he had changed.

"I am deeply sorry for the actions that I took on the night of April 8, 1988, as well as for any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims," Wahlberg wrote in his pardon application.

"Since that time, I have dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others," he explained.

But he withdrew the application after protests from Asian American groups at the time, The Wrap reported, calling the move "ill-advised."

"I didn't need that, I spent 28 years righting the wrong. I didn't need a piece of paper to acknowledge it. I was kind of pushed into doing it, I certainly didn't need to or want to relive that stuff over again," he told The Wrap. "Wahlberg said of the 1988 incident, for which he served 45 days in prison."

In the request, he wrote: "I have not engaged in philanthropic efforts in order to make people forget about my past. To the contrary, I want people to remember my past so that I can serve as an example of how lives can be turned around and how people can be redeemed."

While the state of Massachusetts didn't pardon Wahlberg, he received a personal one from Trinh, the Daily Mail reported in 2014.

"He was young and reckless but I forgive him now. Everyone deserves another chance. I would like to see him get a pardon. He should not have the crime hanging over him any longer," Trinh expressed.

"He paid for his crime when he went to prison. I am not saying that it did not hurt when he punched me in the face, but it was a long time ago. He has grown up now. I am sure he has his own family and is a responsible man."

But another victim was less forgiving. "Kristyn Atwood, of Decatur, Georgia, was among a group of black schoolchildren hit by rocks hurled by Wahlberg and his white friends in 1986. She says Wahlberg shouldn't be pardoned for a separate attack two years later on a pair of Asian men," reported the Associated Press.