The Conversation We Should Be Having About Mark Wahlberg’s Entitled Pardon Request


News broke this week that Mark Wahlberg — actor, producer, restauranteur, and the star of the upcoming Christmas Day release The Gambler — has applied to have his 1988 felony assault conviction in Massachusetts expunged from his record. The timing and the content of the news paints a grim portrait of celebrity entitlement in an age of protest and unrest.

As time slips by, the institutional memory that Mark Wahlberg was a teenage racist thug gets lost. It’s subsumed by the fact that nowadays, he’s a gruffly cuddly celebrity who stars in and sometimes produces pretty good films (The Departed, The Other Guys, The Fighter), a restauranteur who went in on Wahlburgers with his brothers, a reality show producer (Wahlburgers the show, etc., other Boston-based nightmares), and also responsible for the undying bro-fest of HBO’s Entourage, based on his life. He’ll win an Oscar someday, for sure. He also beat a man in a racist attack, leaving the victim blind in one eye.

His argument that he should have his record cleared is based on the fact that he wants to be a reserve officer for the LAPD, and hazy excuses including Wahlburgers expansion, “working with kids,” and rumors of running for office. From the content of the request, Mark Wahlberg has “forgiven himself” regarding his crimes, because he’s made efforts to do charity work within communities. He served forty-five days of a two-year sentence. He can sleep at night.

But he’s also never apologized publicly regarding his racist, violent crimes. He’s never apologized specifically and publicly to his victim, Tranh Lam. (Who’s to say whether or not Lam received money, considering his whole life changed when Wahlberg beat him with a stick? It’s not public and we’ve never heard from him.) His tone regarding these incidents in interviews is markedly callous, referring to how he had to change — and not to the people who were menaced by him.

In another episode, Wahlberg, as part of a group of teens, threw rocks and yelled racist epithets at a group of school kids. The Boston Globe quotes Mary Belmonte, the class teacher, who remembered leading her terrified elementary school students down a side street to avoid the hail of rocks: “I’m sure he’s sincere and he wants to clear his name. It would be nice if he could apologize and really own up to what he was.”

It would be nice. The news that Wahlberg wants all this quietly forgotten, while neither apologizing nor owning up to what he really was, is supremely tone-deaf. It’s a man expecting a break simply due to his fame and money, and doing so at the exact moment that the country is protesting the non-indictments of white police officers who murdered unarmed black men for petty crimes (or no crimes at all). It is also a picture of a guy who has a great opportunity to use his large platform as a celebrity to bring attention to real issues like recidivism, but instead, he’s simply concerned with his own reputation.

If you were a young troublemaker, in and out of trouble with the law, who turned it around and achieved enviable levels of American success, you also owe it to reconcile with the people you hurt along the way. In Wahlberg’s case, he happens to have a very large platform to talk about real issues of race and class in America. There’s so much potential there.

Recidivism is the term for how people can fall into the same behavior that they did before serving jail time, and in our prison system, there’s a high likelihood of reoffending: you’re dealing with a hostile, expensive outside world where it’s difficult to get a straight job with “convict” on the record. Taystee’s storyline in the first season of Orange Is the New Black was a succinct portrayal of a woman in the prison system who simply didn’t have the resources (family, community, etc.) to build a better life for herself once she was released.

In a tough job market, ex-cons are placed much further toward the back of the line. They’re saddled with difficult consequences for shaping a life — their voting rights are often in question, menial employment is difficult to come by, and their community may not be a place where people are able to get jobs in the first place. There are real problems above and beyond whether a movie star can be a reserve officer in the LAPD.

Considering the difficulties for the average ex-convict in America — and don’t forget the statistics, with half of our prison population coming from African Americans (who are 13% of our population), a consequence of living in economic and racially stratified areas — it’s really hard to have any sympathy for Wahlberg. He may be a wonderful man in his day-to-day life (he’s probably fine, whatever), but he has made no reckoning with the people that he’s hurt. The language that he uses regarding “forgiveness” is the language of Catholicism and redemption used in a myopic fashion, familiar to anyone who’s experienced the trials of religious education.

This plea for a pardon could be a powerful moment to talk about real American problems, if Wahlberg got his head out of his ass for a minute. If his plea makes further advances through the Massachusetts court system — and don’t doubt that celebrity will be the driver there, as Wahlberg wields significant economic power in his hometown state (Ted 2 was filming there this summer) — it could be ample opportunity for him to talk about the prison system in America, to talk about how we treat ex-cons and how we can do better. But considering how little sincerity there is in Wahlberg’s paperwork, it’s probably unlikely. If he wanted to do good works that’s the least he could do, given that he’s pulling strings publicly so his life can be better, which isn’t a thing that anyone else who’s dealing with the prison system can do.

A man can make a mistake. A man can change and become a better man. A man can ask for his record to be expunged. But if he’s going to be a man of honor — and I know you’re into that Wahlberg, remember when you would’ve saved the planes on September 11th? — he should probably belly up to the truth of the crimes that he committed and the lives that he affected. If you want to help people, then man up, apologize publicly, and use your celebrity to talk about real problems in America.