Is Dave Chappelle Brilliant, or Canceled?
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle came “on time and professional,” she says. She did her homework this week: She watched “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle’s controversial new Netflix comedy special, “which all the cool kids are talking about,” says Toure.
Comedian Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special addresses his conflicts with the LGBTQ community head-on, but the backlash against him has just intensified.
Chappelle devotes a significant part of his act to his friendship with a fellow comedian, Daphne Dorman. He tells the story of how Dorman defended Chappelle publicly, was dragged for it, and later committed suicide.
Is Chappelle’s admittedly transphobic comedy damaging to trans folks? Does it have a negative effect on the way our culture perceives them? And does race have anything to do with the conversation?
Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, “The Closer,” is complex, a bundle of contradictions — and, at least in some parts, really f***ing funny. If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s nearly impossible to argue its merits (or whether it’s harmful) by scrolling through Twitter.
“I think people should form their own opinions about it,” says Danielle. “I don’t think you should just go along with what’s in the headlines.”
Those headlines are mixed. Critics like Craig Jenkins at Vulture seemed to find it sometimes funny but mostly confusing. Helen Lewis at the Atlantic called it “a series of dares … Does this joke bother you? What about this one?”
Meanwhile, many people in the LGBTQ community, especially trans people, are not just clapping back at Chappelle. They’re taking action. Trans employees at Netflix are planning a walkout after Netflix suspended a trans employee who crashed a private executive meeting and tweeted criticism about the comedian. Advocacy groups like GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition have condemned Chappelle and Netflix. NBJC Executive Director David Johns characterized Chappelle’s comedy as “lazy and hostile transphobia and homophobia.”
Toure thought “The Closer” was brilliant, but he understands why our trans brothers and sisters don’t agree: “I think this special in particular is a little angrier and bitter-er,” he says.
As a queer Black woman, Danielle detests comedy that makes people from marginalized communities the butts of its jokes. She thinks it’s “lazy” to pick on “people who were literally at the bottom of society’s totem pole, thinking it’s witty and enjoyable.”
But she also thinks that in order to get noticed, comedians have to be assholes. They have to shock; to do something that might get them “canceled.”
Toure thinks a number of things can be true, and right, at the same time. He also thinks there’s a lack of nuance in the criticism both for and against Chappelle: Black trans people who feel offended and attacked; fans of the comedian who want them to stop being so sensitive.
Lots to discuss this week. Let’s get into it.
Episode Highlights — On Dave Chappelle
‘Black lives matter less than gay feelings’
Danielle was struck by one of Chappelle’s points early on: Multiplatinum rapper DaBaby isn’t just a homophobe; he shot and killed someone in a Walmart.
Neither Toure nor Danielle knew this until Chappelle talked about it.
Toure thinks it was “one of the most important moments of the whole special. Black lives matter so little that DaBaby could murder a Black person — very important that it’s a black body he destroyed — but nothing happened to his career. And yet he said some very unacceptable things about gay people and his career was disrupted.”
Put simply, he adds, “Dave lays it out. Black lives matter less than gay feelings.”
Danielle wasn’t offended by that at all. She thought: Why should somebody be canceled? You’d think killing someone would do it. But “the other part of that twisted scenario,” she adds, is that “it’s part of rap culture … still.”
Power vs. ‘punching down’
“Accepting homophobia, saying homophobic things, has long been a part of hip-hop culture,” says Toure.
“But also the idea that a rapper is powerful, gun-toting, part of a gang … So it’s like, maybe his fucking sales went up after people learned that he was a murderer,” Danielle replies.
“I think that’s a much more interesting conversation,” she says. “Who actually has power? That’s what I think Dave Chappelle offered in that snippet: How is it that we care more about this community’s feelings than about this community’s lives?”
Toure argues that “the notion that Dave is ‘punching down’ [a specific phrase used by his trans critics] is completely thrown awry by him pointing out: I’m talking about white people and their behavior and how they function in society.”
One of the reasons gay people have been able to make such strides over the last 20 years — going from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to gay marriage being widely supported and legal — is because “many gay people are white, and they were able to use their whiteness” to protect themselves, says Toure.
Some minorities still have privilege
Dave Chappelle cites a specific example in the special. He recounts a dispute with a gay person who threatens to call the police — “as soon as they need to pull out their white race card,” says Toure.
Chappelle’s actual quote: “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.”
“In no way, shape or form has Dave Chappelle been canceled,” he adds. “Throwing that word into this conversation reduces the word to meaninglessness. He has a gigantic bank account and he’s lost no opportunities. He has the number three special on Netflix right now. Netflix would leap to give him another nine figures tomorrow to do three more specials.”
However, Toure wants to be clear: “Dave’s conversation in this special absolutely contributes to the notion that you can make fun of trans people, that they are other, they are laughable.”
We’re watching Chappelle learn in real time
Some of his critics “immediately dismiss Dave Chappelle as boring, old and over the hill,” says Toure.
“But their critique will be more powerful, and people like me would hear them better if they would start by acknowledging that [Chappelle] is the greatest living comedian” — before they make arguments about the way he talks about trans folks.
However, Toure thinks Chappelle is “working out in real time his understanding of what’s going on” — meaning he’s learning how to wrap his mind around trans acceptance. And for better or for worse, we’re watching him do it.
Toure says that in his own life, as a straight cis person, he came to understand and accept gay people because people in his own life came out to him. Over the last few decades, millions of Americans had the same experience.
Trans people have a much harder time, though — “because there are fewer of them, so fewer people have direct relationships with trans people,” Toure says.
Violence begins with dehumanizing jokes
We live in a world where Black trans women are murdered at the highest rate of any minority group. So we have to listen to trans people when they tell us it’s painful to hear comments like Chappelle’s, says Danielle.
“Violence begins in these spaces where it starts as a joke. And then you think [trans] people are a joke,” she argues. “When you think they’re a joke, they don’t matter. And you diminish them.”
Dave Chappelle may be working this out and trying to understand it, but Danielle asks: “How is he doing that? By using their physical bodies as target practice for jokes? There is a very fine line.”
She knows that, as a comedian, Chappelle needs to push those boundaries, but she wonders: At whose expense?
Comedians ‘say the unsayable’
Toure argues that “one of the core jobs of comedians, and especially Black comedians historically, has been to say the unsayable thing. Through saying it, and having the conversation openly, you get to have these conversations and these redefinitions of where we all are.”
In the special, Chappelle frequently couches his jokes by freely admitting he is transphobic, which is ostensibly meant to be relatable to audience members who feel the same and soften the blow with those who find his humor offensive.
Toure thinks a lot of people are, like Chappelle, “slowly working out what they feel and are working their way towards understanding trans people. They may not be as woke and as understanding as we would like at this time. It’s going to be a process.”
“Whenever I hear someone say that it’s going to take time, that people just don’t understand, I want to fucking scream,” says Danielle.
“Because it is the same thing Black people have been told since the beginning of time. That it’s just going to take time for white people not to be domestic terrorists. It’s just gonna take time for racism to go away; don’t rush it.”
Must we see ourselves in others to see their humanity?
Danielle maintains that we don’t necessarily need Chappelle or anyone else to understand the trans experience.
“I need you to understand people,” she says. “That we should treat people with dignity fucking regardless. You don’t need to have a breakdown of a surgery … to know there are people on this planet who are hurting because they weren’t born into the body they feel right in, who want the world to treat them in a way that’s reflective of their full personhood.”
Danielle balks at the fact that some people need to “see themselves in others” to see them as worthy of respect. She thinks we shouldn’t have to meet or talk to transgender people to wrap our minds around the need to treat them with dignity.
But, says Toure, “That’s the way that human beings function … it’s hard for human beings to ascribe humanity to real strangers.”
When Dave met Daphne
Chappelle spends a significant portion of his act talking about his friendship with one of his ardent fans, a trans comedian named Daphne Dorman. Dorman, who defended Chappelle online after LGBTQ backlash to his previous special, “Sticks and Stones,” was herself viciously attacked on Twitter. She later committed suicide.
In “The Closer,” Chappelle admits he didn’t know the details of what Dorman struggled with at the end of her life. But he insinuates a connection between her death and the virtual mob with tweets for pitchforks: “I bet dragging her didn’t help,” he says.
Chappelle sums up his story about Dorman by drawing some serious lines in the sand.
“I feel like she wasn’t their tribe,” he says of her place in the trans community. “She was mine. She was a comedian in her soul.”
For Chappelle, being in his “tribe” is what makes her humanity tangible.
Who decides what’s hateful?
Toure points out that even though Chappelle admits his transphobia, he does make it clear that he’s not saying trans women aren’t women. He clearly has great affection for Dorman and grief over her passing. He even talks about how he set up a trust fund for Dorman's daughter.
But Chappelle also talks about his discomfort with encountering a trans woman in a restroom.
“Does he say that in a hateful way?” Toure asks. “I don’t think so. But honesty is too much to take for some people.”
Danielle bristles at that.
“I don’t want a white person telling me what is painful or hurtful to me as a Black queer woman. And I sure as fuck don’t want non-trans people telling me what is hateful or hurtful to them.”
What’s race got to do with it?
There’s a parallel to be made between racism and transphobia when it comes to human rights.
“I’m not really that concerned with winning over white people’s hearts, as long as Black people have the rights to do what we need to do,” says Toure. “As long as we have economic power … I don’t really give a shit if you love me or respect me, or seek my humanity. If I have enough money to take care of me and my community, if I have legal rights, I’m good.”