After a near 13 year hiatus, 2017 treated Dave Chappelle quite well. Following his post-presidential election gig as a host on SNL, which earned the show its highest ratings in years, Chappelle made his return to the stand-up forum, with four specials being released through Netflix in 2017.
The first pair of specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin, which were both dropped on Netflix’s platform in March of 2017, were noticeably dated. With one released in 2015 and the other in 2016, it was obvious that Chappelle was returning to the stand-up game, settling back into his routine and demeanor. Moreover, it was apparent that the humor and topics of conversation were a bit dated too. One of the foremost jokes that caused Chappelle to receive a lot of flack, particularly from the LGBT community, was for his comments about gay and transgender people.
A So-So Defense of Chappelle’s Transgender Jokes
In Chappelle’s newest special, Equanimity, shot at the Warner Theater in his hometown of Washington D.C., Chappelle seems to atone for these jokes, although it might not be enough of an apology for most. Chappelle raises awareness for this topic and the criticism he received for it by reflecting on a letter he received from a transgender fan who was disappointed and hurt by his comments. While he was upset for having made a fan feel personally hurt, he regresses by stating that he does not regret making the joke in the first place (of which was about Bruce Jenner). His reasoning is that he made the joke only because he does not understand the culture and mindset of transgender people, further declaring, “If I’m mad at somebody, I’m probably mad at myself.” He continues in that he has no problem with the transgender community, and that if his joke might ever caused violence towards the community, well, it was never his intention and any person who would do such a thing is a “piece of shit.”
For Chappelle, his reason for the critique was for the fact that the transgender community had only become relevant because the movement is led primarily by white America (in this case, Bruce Jenner); otherwise, it was a sect of people that would have long gone unnoticed and continued to have gone oppressed. Now, this clarifying comment overlooks the truth that there is a large portion of non-white transgender people, as well as a large community that has continually provided a voice for themselves, but it does raise a salient point (as flawed as it might be): that white feelings are more important than black feelings. To put it more succinctly, the white experience is far more valid than the black one.
Racial Politics and Reexamining Chappelle’s Trump Comments
This is where Chappelle has long been at his most adept. Whether through his prior stand-up specials or through Chappelle’s Show, he has long been able to produce humor from the absurdities of race relations in America, with the better part of Equanimity focusing on this very issue. Similar to his comments regarding the white experience in the transgender community, Chappelle further jokes about the case of Rachel Dolezal, wherein he states that she simply wants to be a part of black culture without dealing with the black experience, joking that he would only respect her when she put a “lien on her home” or “changed her name” to something that sounded truly black.
As the set progresses, he continues on this topic, discussing his 2016 monologue on SNL and his regret in asking that we give Donald J. Trump a chance. A year after the election, now given the time to reconsider his decision like most other Americans, Chappelle finds it necessary to examine just how things have changed in America and how he feels about it. Topics come down to the shame and duty felt in voting for Clinton, which he never would have wanted to have done if not for her running against Trump, while still having her lose in the end, becoming bewildered by the Trump presidency and his actions (likening them to the ideas of a stoner), stating his well wishes for Trump were flawed in that he had never given the POC community a chance, and noting the difference in electoral crowds in Ohio from the Obama years to the 2016 election, stating that while he and these “dusty white people” had different opinions they were the same in that they were all being screwed over by elite white America.
Chappelle ends the special on a serious and more nuanced note, comparing Trump’s presidency to the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was beaten, shot, lynched, and drowned in Mississippi in 1955 after Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, accused him of flirting with and/or whistling at her. In 2017, previous interviews with Bryant revealed that she had lied during her testimony to police, and that Till never actually assaulted her. Rather than displaying rage over her blatant lie, one that caused the gruesome, horrific death of black teenager in the racially divided American South, Chappelle makes a case for hope. He contends that Bryan’ts lie, while morally repugnant and causing an unlawful death, created the much needed mobilization of black activism across the country, one that incited the Civil Rights Movement. Similar to the case of this Age of Trump, Chappelle hopes that America will finally wake-up and confront the situation we have allowed to take place, only to come out a more inclusive and better nation for it.
Returning to his stomping grounds of D.C., Chappelle incites a hopeful message. Filmed just a few blocks from the White House, he causes the audience not only to laugh, but to realize that the current presidency can be a milestone that we might look back upon, one that marks the moment in which we all came together to create a better America.
Photo: Mathieu Bitton/Netflix (Dave Chappelle ‘Equanimity’)