Are We Overreacting To Dave Chappelle's Netflix Performance?

Photo Credit: Lester Cohen/Wire Image
Written by Nikki Igo of www.nikigbo.com

“You are a f***ing ***hole for saying these things,” Dave Chapelle said about 50 minutes into his recently released Netflix Special Age of Spin: Dave Chapelle Live at The Hollywood Palladium. He was quoting a feminist’s disapproval of his views on Bill Cosby during a show in Syracuse. He could have just as easily been paraphrasing the backlash that has proliferated on the web in the weeks since his special premiered. His duel concerts have been decried as misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and out of touch with current comedic expectations. I couldn’t help but find this overwhelmingly liberal commentary as laughable as the jokes Chapelle told.

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I suspect those disenchanted viewers expected a continuation of the opening monologue Chapelle performed on his Saturday Night Live (SNL) appearance last November, ie. more lampooning of Donald Trump, more commentary on white racism, more notes on Black Lives Matter, more criticism of mass shootings and more Obama nostalgia.

But the Netflix specials were not that at all. Originally taped in early 2016 following the deaths of Phife Dawg and Garry Shandling, the Netflix concerts proved to be more of a comical indictment of progressive thinking. I guess many liberal viewers weren’t quite ready for that.

I consider myself a liberally-minded individual who leans more blue than red. Still I’m a registered Independent because I recognize that liberals often let their supposed moral high ground and political correctness blind them to their own prejudices. But Chapelle’s comedy doesn’t subscribe to political correctness; instead he broadcasts the thoughts Americans have, but never voice for fear of being labeled as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic.

Still, these statements without regard for offense need to be made because we all need to admit and discuss where we stand. And we need to lighten up as we take heed, no matter our various degrees of discomfort, because, as quiet as it’s kept, a bunch of supposed liberals still voted for Trump.

It was particularly odd to witness some of my most ardent leftist and open-minded friends furiously write on Facebook about their angst and downright rejection of Chapelle’s specials. I chuckled because I specifically remember how one of my Ayn Rand-loving friends in 2006 called Chapelle a reverse-racist. In both cases of conservative and liberal disapproval, these viewers seemed to nitpick specific portions of Chapelle’s comedy while failing to recognize the incredibly astute and layered nature of his social commentary. Perhaps they forgot what kind of comic Chapelle is.

Back on Chapelle’s Show—One of my favorite sketches was about the blind Ku Klux Klansman whose friends refused to reveal his racial status to him because of his importance to the white supremacist movement. While it was quite easy to laugh at the absurdity of a black klansman, it was truly revolutionary for a black comic to so slyly point out black contributions to systemic racism. The message was this: black people, unaware of who they truly are, often prove to be the most anti-black members of American society. Chapelle hasn’t lost his touch; he’s simply gotten more inclusive with his targets.

In his stand up, Chapelle has an uncanny way of using anecdotal rhetoric to lend dimension to political perspective. No portion of his comedy is ever accidental or unintentional but rather designed to encourage multiple viewings and deeper consideration. He flexes this comedic muscle in a segment about an encounter with a duo of film producers—one homosexual and the other Texan. He states how he knew the homosexual producer was gay because he “could just tell,” which is a purposeful albeit subtle revelation. How many of us liberals claim to be allies of the LGBT movement and profess to having some sort of “gay-dar?” Yet, if our goal is to accept everyone regardless of sexual orientation, why is it so important for us to label and classify? Chapelle then pitches an idea to the LGBT producer about a gay superhero who primarily only saves other gays but eventually gets around to saving others. Isn’t it funny how special interest groups tend to avidly support their own causes but do little to lend a hand to other movements even as they demand widespread support?

To the Texan producer, Chapelle pitches an all-American, pro truth and justice, life-saving superhero who depends on sexual assault to replenish his extraordinary abilities. The punchline is not the sexually assaulting superhero himself but rather the Texan producer’s excited reception to such an inane idea. But then again, is the concept really so silly? Texans claim to be pro-life and pro-family but have made it harder for women to vote and have endangered female lives with their war on reproductive health rights. And furthermore, aren’t Roman Polanski, Donald Trump, and Bill O’Reilly still being lauded for their various contributions to society despite their crimes against women? Chapelle also implicates both himself and black folks in this same hypocrisy as he mentions his own reverence of O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby. Can’t we also include R. Kelly, Chris Brown and Floyd Mayweather in that mix?

As for Chapelle’s alleged transphobic jokes, I had to admit my own shortcomings on the subject as I watched. Chapelle deftly points out how the media made transgender acceptance seem universal as it celebrated Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. However, we all know such acceptance is not the case based on the recent rash of attacks on transgender people and North Carolina’s relentless mission to police genitalia in public restrooms. Even for those of us who are proponents of living and letting live, gender identity and redefining what gender actually is a challenging and confusing concept. Just as Chapelle relays in his anecdote about flubbing the proper pronoun to use for a transgender woman, I have made that same faux pas and been just as annoyed. If a person goes from being a “he” to a “she,” it is difficult for me (having little to no knowledge of the transgender culture and experience) to understand or accurately assess the situation. Expressing this annoyance and confusion isn’t transphobia, nor is it the desire to castigate transgender people. Rather it is an admission that we all have a long way to go on the matter.

During Age of Spin, Chapelle makes two key statements that most accurately explain his stance on modern liberalism. First he explains that members of the LGBT movement, despite the existence of laws protecting LGBT rights, must understand that America will move toward this particular form of equality with all deliberate speed—which is about as quickly as the nation has moved toward guaranteeing rights for people of color.

It is going to take a while.

His second statement charges all of us, and particularly the millennial generation, to take the time to really investigate our world rather than simply accepting statements and actions at face value. It behooves us all to listen, watch and think carefully, instead of simply reacting and immediately judging.

In short, we all need to calm down and dare to look more deeply into the mirror Chapelle’s comedy presents. His brand of comedy is not out of touch. Nor is it racist, misogynist, homophobic or transphobic. It’s devastatingly honest. And in all of its offensive glory, it asks us to have the decency to laugh at how ridiculous we all have the capacity to be.

What are your thoughts on Dave Chappelle's Netflix special? Share in the comments section.
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Nikki Igbo is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and political junkie. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design. When not staring in disbelief at the antics unfolding on CSPAN, she enjoys philosophical arguments with her husband, 70s era music and any excuse to craft with glitter. Feel free to check out her freelance services at nikigbo.com and stalk her on Twitter @nikigbo or on Instagram @nikigbo.

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