In September of 2017, Dave Chappelle filmed his 3rd Netflix Special, Equanimity. As part of his brief return to public appearances after a near 12 year hiatus, this special offers a unique insight into the mind of one of the most talented comedians of all time and serves as a time capsule for Chappelle views and experiences as a black man America. He speaks his mind about many current social issues, with particular focus on the transgender rights movement, juxtaposing it with the civil rights movement. Chappelle comments on how, though he has nothing against trans people, he found it has been surprised at the general acceptance the movement has gained in a country that still faces significant racial issues. He then later in the piece he pivots and speaks about the Trump presidency. He is very critical of Trump emphasizes a lot of negatives about our nation but has an overall optimistic outlook. Overall he provides a powerful insight into what it is like living as a black man in America, and how race and racism have affected the way his experiences and views. He places his thoughts and understandings alongside those of others, particularly white people, highlighting how and why they differ. He shows how racism is still an issue today, and how it has become even more apparent with the 2016 elections.
Historical and Cultural Context
In Equanitmity, Chappelle references multiple social, political and historical issues and events in his jokes, often relating them to other ones. He uses comedy to indicate the flaws in the issues or events or uses them to support the points he makes. The three biggest ones are about Emmett Till, Rachel Dolezal and the attitude towards stereotypical black names. Emmett Till was lynched when he was 14 years old after he whistled at a white woman in the 1950s. His murder is an important moment in history because it exemplifies the racial bias in the justice system as his killers were not imprisoned or punished (Pérez-Peña). While Chappelle used his story to comment on Trump’s presidency, the context of his death is still very relevant today. Another one of Chappelle’s biggest points of discussion is the transgender community and rights movement. In relation, Chappelle brought up Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be black for years. He compared her “identify[ing] as black” to the way transgender people identify as a certain gender, only that he does not believe Dolezal (Chappelle). Also, during his juxtaposition of the transgender rights movement to the civil rights movement, Chappelle speaks a little about black names. While not going far in depth, this brings another layer to his commentary because research has shown correlation between people with stereotypical black names and poverty and less success in life (Dubner and Levitt). All of these events bring more depth to his points because of how they relate to race and racism in America, none of the points can be considered without their context, affecting their meanings.
Chappelle follows in the footsteps of other black comedians, who have a long history of social and political commentary (Carpio). He, like many others, uses comedy to point out things that are wrong or should be changed, which can be seen throughout his career in comedy. Many of his skits have provided important insight into racism and racial tensions in America. Similarly, this special also continues something else from his past, his reluctance to preform and his want to quit comedy. Chappelle’s went on a twelve-year hiatus prior to this and he discusses his reasoning for why, mostly being how started feeling like his was becoming socially irresponsible, which is in relation to how white audiences react to black comedy, to the point where he feels like white audiences were not laughing with him but at him (Bailey). This also has a long history, for as long as there has been black comedy, there has been the mocking of black people, such as the minstrel performances of the 19th century (Carpio).
Themes and Styles
Chappelle follows several themes with this jokes and commentary, many of them revolving around highlighting or pointing something out. To do so, he relates one topic or issue to another, many times ones that seem unrelated, forming a particular style. By comparing topics, he also brings more depth to his commentary, almost as if he is alluding to other issues or thoughts. This makes his jokes not just funny, but very thoughtful and detailed.
The first and most central theme of the special is the idea that good can come from bad things. This theme is not suggesting that we should purposely act badly in hopes that it will bring about good results. Instead it is an optimistic look on what may appear to be bleak in the moment. It shows us a possible future, and acts as a rallying cry for us to wake up and make that future a reality. In the special Chappelle shows that the death of Emmett Till, though tragic and bleak, was ultimately what was needed to wake America to the true horrors of the Jim Crow south. The Civil Rights Movement gained strength because of the hard fighting of many Americans, and through it we reached a better place. Chappelle parallels these events with those facing our modern society. He talks about Trump’s failings as a president but hopes that it is exactly what this country needs to open its eyes and from it, if we put in the effort and fight for it, someday not too far off we could emerge better of than we are now. Chappelle truly believes in the character of the American people and their desire to make America a better place. Even though he thinks Trump is bad for America, like the murder of Emmett Till, we will learn from it and it will ultimately better off in the future.
Another theme is about how the experiences of black people differ from those of white people, and that society treats them differently. Chappelle goes about revealing this by discussing the transgender rights movement. He first mentions Rachel Dolezal and her story about pretending to be a black woman. As said earlier, Chappelle does not believe her story as he does transgender people’s. By bringing her into his discourse, he brings up, but does not elaborate on, how race identity is different from gender identity. This is part of his style of bringing up an outside topic to help get his point across. Along the lines of identity, Chappelle makes a powerful point, that one of the reasons the transgendered rights movement has gained support is because white men are a part of it, not just minorities. He comments that the movement “reeks of white privilege,” emphasizing on the fact that it was “easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than for Cassius Clay to change his name” (Chappelle).These jokes support his theme of the black experience, because they stress how America often shows lack of support for black issues and movements.
Chappelle continues to joke about names by talking about Dolezal not changing her name, and by doing so he continues the style of lightly mentioning an issue with greater depth to it, in this case, black names. Chappelle comments on Rachel Dolezal’s lack of commitment stating “didn’t even change her name”, and that if she wanted him to believe she was really black she would “have to change her name to Draymond Green” (Chappelle). He then jokes “if you type Draymond Green into Airbnb that shit will log off automatic,” touching on how black names are treated (Chappelle). The idea that black names put people at a disadvantage can be seen in studies made that, as mentioned earlier, show that stereotypical black names are correlated to higher poverty rates and lower success rates in life (Dubner and Levitt). So by making these comments Chappelle shows another way the black experience is different, and can be based in something as simple as name.
To begin with, it is prudent to remember why Chappelle declined a $50 million offer from Comedy Central, instead choosing to leave the country. He supposedly was tired of getting harsh reactions specially from the white and transgender communities. His shows have been widely criticized as the techniques he implements when telling jokes have been described as reckless. After many years of “walking in the shadows”, Chappelle decided to return and film some Netflix specials, Equanimity being our main focus.
Through time Chappelle continues to be described by critics as being homophobic and transphobic. At first, some people thought this type of mentality would change in his new specials, but as you will notice it clearly didn’t. Critics stemming from Equanimity were negative, in general. In The New Republic’s article, “What is Dave Chappelle’s problem with gay people?”, its author, Eric Sasson describes Chappelle’s mentality as a “myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have”. He does this by extracting a line from Chappelle’s special referring to the Trans society: “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe” (Sasson). He sets this example as a main contributor to Chappelle’s wrongful mentality… that the progress Trans people have done in the past years has come at the expense of black people.
The article, “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials” released by The Vulture, is another example proving how poorly received Chappelle’s comments can be taken. One can obviously have an idea of what the article is about just by looking at its title, but Matt Zoller Seitz, its author, goes beyond any of these ideas. He refers to Chappelle as “one of the most important comedians of the last 20 years” but he also states that “unfortunately, the four specials released in the past year make him seem out of touch at best…” (Zoller Seitz).
One can say it’s easier to find negative things out of such a controversial special, but by the research made, one can tell why Chappelle’s specials were widely regarded as homophobic and transphobic. In the article “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Movement”, Jason Zinoman, explains why he thinks some of Chappelle’s “jokes” can be regarded as a “revolutionary social movement” (Zinoman). This article raises the question of what the actual role of a comedian is. Is it to make people laugh and have a fun time? or is it supposed to create a revolutionary social movement?
On the contrary of critiques, there were no articles or text works praising Chappelle’s special that I could find. However; one might want to look at what Chappelle’s audience looks like. In my opinion, the fact that Chappelle is the sole author of his lines makes him, as a comedian, very fun to watch for some people. His audience is varied in all terms (age, gender, race…) but the African American community is often present. With some of his comments stating Martin Luther King Jr., Chappelle has gained respect from the community, as is now seen as some type of “social leader”.
Bailey, Constance. “Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 36.4 (2012): 253-263.
Carpio, Glenda R. Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Pérez-Peña, Richard. “Woman Linked to 1955 Emmett Till Murder Tells Historian Her Claims Were False.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2017.
Sasson, Eric. “What is Dave Chappelle’s Problem with Gay People?” The New Republic 23 March 2017. Web.
Zinoman, Jason. “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment.” The New York Times 2 January 2018. Web.
Zoller Seitz, Matt. “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials.” Vulture 3 January 2018. Web.
Aitkenhead, Decca. “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I’m not going to stoop and apologise and grovel’” The Gaurdian, The Gaurdian, 25 Feb. 2017
Maus, Derek C., and James J. Donahue. Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Print.
Scott, Eugene. “Dave Chappelle has a message for ‘poor white’ Trump supporters.” The Washington Post 22 December 2017. Web.
Suskind, Alex. “Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Evolution.” The Daily Beast 22 March 2017. Web.
Dave Chappelle, Equanimity, Black Comedy, Comedy, Black Culture, Modern Racism, Donald Trump
Essay By: Thomas Kane, Belen Heybroek, Juan Castellanos