Pop Culture

Dave Chappelle’s Betrayal

Poet Saeed Jones used to consider himself a longtime fan of the comedian. But Chappelle’s new Netflix special “The Closer,” which fixates on gay and trans people, feels like a stab in the back.

Dave Chappelle in January 2020 .

Dave Chappelle in January 2020 (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images).Sean Rayford

You ever hear the one about the famous Black comedian who disappeared when he realized the white people watching him were laughing a little too hard and likely for the wrong reasons? Deal with white people long enough, especially the ones who’ve enjoyed enough episodes of “The Wire” and Wu-Tang albums to believe they’re in on the joke, and you can easily understand why Dave Chappelle walked away from $50 million rather than tape a third season of Chappelle’s Show for Comedy Central. He was fighting for his life.

In 2012, eight years into his absence from public life, it seemed like Chappelle had won. When the journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah was working on her now classic profile for The Believer, “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” she spotted him on the street in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “Here Dave is just Dave,” she writes. “Totally uninterrupted, unheckled, free to be himself, free to have a family, and land, and time to recover. Time to be complicated, time to be a confessed fan of fame who one day decided it was important to learn to be himself again.”

It’s a beautiful moment, both because of the clarity with which Kaadzi Ghansah saw Chappelle, and because the freedom he was able to attain, well, I want that for all of us: the Black MacArthur Genius denied and then belatedly offered tenure at a prestigious southern university; the older Black men I used to see playing dominos on Saturday afternoons in Harlem; the ballroom legend performing in Rihanna’s most Savage X Fenty’s show; my friends side-eyeing the white waiter who mimicked our clapping as she approached our table with the check. We deserve to be ourselves. We deserve to do whatever it takes to find our way back to ourselves whenever the need may arise.

With the premiere of “The Closer,” Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, it’s clear the comedian has done all that and more. “First of all, before I start, I wanna say I’m rich and famous,” he smirks and announces at the top of the show. But more than that, he looks good. He looks like someone who knows he’s doing what he loves. I want that for all of us, too.

In the show’s opening minutes, under the auspices of updating the audience on his pandemic experience — he got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine: “Give me the third best option! I’ll have what the homeless people are having!” — Chappelle makes it clear that, in addition to being entertaining, he’s out to test our limits because, it becomes increasingly clear, he believes we need to have our limits tested. A few breaths after likening his immune system fighting coronavirus to Black people violently beating up Asian-Americans, Chappelle surveys the gasping audience and says “It’s gonna get worse than that. Hang in there; it’s gonna get way worse.”

And then it does. Discussing DaBaby, for example, Chappelle opines “In our country, you can shoot and kill a n-gga but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” Never mind that DaBaby’s onstage comments about AIDS at the Rolling Loud festival were truly out of pocket, or that the apology that followed was late and lackluster, or that DaBaby eventually took the apology back.

A few beats later, Chappelle declares “We Blacks, we look at the gay community and we go “Goddamn it! Look how well that movement is going.” Never mind that, in addition to being both Black and gay, I also happen to live in the state of Ohio, as does Chappelle himself, where our governor just signed a provision that will allow doctors and other medical professionals to deny healthcare to LGBTQ patients. As the activist Raquel Willis said on Twitter, “It’s convenient for Black cishet male comedians to talk about LGBTQ+ folks as if our group is only or even predominantly white. With that frame, they don’t have to contend with how Black cishet folks often enact (physical and psychological) violence on Black LGBTQ+ folks.”

By the time Chappelle declares that “gender is a fact” and that he’s “Team TERF” in solidarity with J.K. Rowling, I turned my television off because I wasn’t having fun anymore. And part of freedom as I experience it is that I don’t owe Dave Chappelle any of my time.

Maybe you watch comedy specials to endure them, but I watch them to have a good time, and I stop watching them when that’s no longer the case. Chappelle argues this makes me “too sensitive, too brittle”; I just think I have better things to do than watch a standup set that could just as well have been a Fox News special. As a gay Black man, even when I’m watching a comedy special, my identity is inconveniently present. It’s so annoying; I asked my queerness to chill in the other room so I could watch “The Closer” in peace, but no such luck.

It’s clear that whatever the hell was going on in 2005, Chappelle intuited that Hollywood was trying to kill him, literally or metaphorically, and I’m Black enough to know exactly what that feels like. I cheered when he decided to save himself instead. I cheered even louder when, having saved himself, he decided to return to the stage. America might love a second-act; I love Black people who get free.

Watching Chappelle contort himself to justify ashy ideas about gender, queerness and identity is harrowing, because the only thing more brutal than someone saying hurtful shit is someone saying hurtful shit moments after making you laugh, moments after cracking you up in a way that’s both fun and deeply needed, moments after you making you feel like you all got free together. America has only gotten better at trying to kill me. Laughter is no joke, which makes the betrayal, years in the making at this point, all the more devastating. I feel like a fool to have rooted for Dave Chappelle for so long. Things were easier when the men who wanted to hurt me just said so at the jump.

Last weekend, I was bar-hopping in my neighborhood with friends. There was a whole gang of us. White, Black, Persian, gay, straight, trans, moisturized, un-moisturized, stoned, drunk and sober. And we were vibing. As we crossed the street, colored by the sound of our laughter and the booze lacing our blood, we were free as it’s possible to feel in these disjointed, apocalyptic days. And then two Black men standing on the corner cat-called my friend. She kept her eyes ahead, pretending like she didn’t hear them because a woman, but especially a Black trans woman, can get killed for saying “no” to a man who has decided she owes him her time. The men, standing on the same street I marched up and down countless times last summer, chanting “whose streets? our streets!”, yelled “That’s a MAN! That’s a MAN!” as we all walked away.

That’s the gag, Dave. I thought when you got free, if you decided to come back to us, you’d find a way to help us feel more free too. I believe that’s what laughter does. It loosens us up, helps us shake ourselves free. But watching you spew bullshit just as hurtful as the words those men hurled at us last weekend, I didn’t feel like I was being set free. I felt like I’d just been stabbed by someone I once admired and now he was demanding that I stop bleeding.

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