“You find me offensive? I find you offensive for finding me offensive.”
–Eminem, Rain Man
“Yo BIG, you’re dead wrong.”
–The Notorious B.I.G., Dead Wrong
If the film came out today, I presume the reception would be very divisive. I’m sure there would be a substantial portion of Black folk (and greater society) with a no-tolerance policy for blackface – and rightfully so.
I would not be a member of that constituency.
All talking heads would voice their opinion on why blackface is offensive. When attempting to engage in dialogue regarding character, context, storyline and themes, the opposition would reiterate its contemptuous history or default to the entitlement of simply not finding the movie funny. Many would refuse to watch it all, while others would only watch the snippets circulating on prejudged timelines.
This makes it harder to have a fair debate on the boundaries of satire.
When you have a nice painting, custom framing becomes an extension of the art itself. A skilled framer will consider multiple variables to help complement what you see AND what you don’t. When it comes to the multi-dimensions of perspective on the stand-up stage, Dave Chappelle is in a class by himself.
The comedian’s Netflix special “Stick & Stones” is a performance of masterful framing. In the abstract, it is endurance art where he’s setting himself up to escape a trap he made. Telling a joke is not a crime. But to him (and some of his comedian peers) it’s feeling like “celebrity hunting season.” So this is his preemptive strike in self-defense of a viral clip, an old tweet, an old fling accusing him of premature ejaculation and/or a lost skit about a bunch of sticks. Whatever the non-criminal crime may be – before being tried in the court of public opinion for insensitive assault, he’s letting us know words will never hurt him.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong but we’ll see.”
I read a comment online that called the comedy special a “Declaration of Independence from cancel culture.” I concur. It’s a comedic manifesto of love me or leave me alone, hashtag bag secured. However, it was NOT a middle finger to those who took umbrage, hence the epilogue which was an addendum to his imaginative process and purpose. In many ways, he gave us his own introspective version of a Charlie Murphy True Hollywood Stories with actual pictures to illustrate the journey.
In that self-reflection, Chappelle is also lying to himself to create a firewall. He knows the power of language. He knows his words can hurt us and our words can hurt him. He just refuses to allow it and hopes we do the same. There is a nuance to this language, similar to translation versus colloquial interpretation, with the result being the intersectionality of pop culture and politics with a highly sensitive void space.
For example, don’t conflate far-right praise for allegiance against you. They’re exploiting our senses of humor for their purposes of senseless hatred. We are not one. We are the family member who may poke fun at you but has your back.
If you notice, I never said who I was referring to as “you.” But as the reader, you probably thought of a particular group.
That being said, Dave Chappelle isn’t transphobic – he’s paranoid of elite celebrity status. Yet he recognizes we’re in this current cesspool together. At worst he’s struggling to process how we got here – in the meantime, he’s got jokes, most of them are on us, specifically us as Americans. Since many don’t like his diagnoses, they say he’s out of touch or ignorant. Both are incorrect.
We often forget the vantage point of touring comics. Like a controlled social experiment, they tell the same jokes in the same intimate settings to different demographics. Audiences have been his focus groups for a span of roughly 30 years. He sees the climate changing and he’s addressing the deniers.
When Dave and director Stan Lathan prepped for filming, I presume they had an inside joke regarding the Michael Jackson bit he told in 2004’s “For What It’s Worth” as well as the Michael Jackson bit he told in “Sticks & Stones.” The joke is the same but the difference was in the reaction from society at large.
“It just doesn’t stop, and the only reason I can talk about Mike, is cause he’s a freak…,” Chappelle says before delivering the accurate punchline: “‘Cause if I brought up Catholic priests fucking kids it’ll get quiet as shit.”
For years, he’s given the same disclaimers, same suspicions, same double-standards while watching audiences morph into photo filters of how they think things should appear but not necessarily how they really look. He seems open for a reckoning if we can be more honest with our own reflections. I’m sure he’ll join hands with any self-defined “progressive” conditionally. While marching to a moral high ground, if ‘mama jokes’ are not permitted out of respect for mothers who are victims of #MeToo, then I suspect he’ll opt out and find another way to be supportive.
Look, he’s not crass without purpose. Most of the cringe-worthy moments occur when he transcribes events that actually happened. This is where the true disgust lays, at the world around us.
His special shouldn’t be this polarizing. He’s not making legislative policy. Our subjective opinions shouldn’t put us at odds with each other. Still, we can’t be dismissive that one’s pleasure is the other’s pain. The problem is the current environment of targeted violence and that some are more vulnerable than others.
Consistent with Chappelle’s penchant to incorporate esoteric hip-hop references, I’d like to continue framing my argument by citing 50 Cent’s musical debut. 50’s rise to notoriety started with a song entitled, “How to Rob,” a collaboration about sticking up rappers performed with the comedic persona Mad Rapper who explicitly said in the chorus, “This ain’t serious…” They thought they were making something fun and clever in the tradition of The Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Dreams,” a name-dropping fantasy ode to various R&B singers that was well-received by everybody except the group Xscape. But in 50’s case, many of the rappers he referenced didn’t find it funny. (In today’s slang: they were mad-mad.) When listening now it sounds harmless, but during the time of the song’s release, the competitive industry was heavily dictated by street rules where talk of taking spoils by force was taken seriously – that was the climate. The reaction was violent.
Code of the streets aside, nowadays there really is nowhere to run. Still, many artists hide behind creative license. Chappelle isn’t hiding, though, and no one is crediting him as courageous. We’re crediting him for his consistent stance on standards and practices a la George Carlin or Bernie Sanders (not an endorsement just a fact lol).
Chappelle’s comedy is a brand of logic. He trusts his cultural intuition, relying on not just gut but antennae catching the frequency that predicted the D.C. snipers were Black. The deductive reasoning was simply funny. Literally, hundreds of mass shootings later, that same logic might come off as insensitive – this is the climate.
As a parent, Dave has the right to point out the ridiculousness of school shooting drills when, by default, the potential shooter is a student who now knows the code to the panic room on Purge night. He probably doesn’t even find those jokes funny but, like his reasoning for buying a shotgun, societal norms are forcing his hand to call out the bullsh-t.
Participating in a serious documentary because he told a popular joke years ago is some bullsh-t. Dave’s logic – he doesn’t know R. Kelly, at all.
A woman walking out while announcing she was rape victim is some bullsh-t. Dave’s logic – it’s a comedy club not a Ted Talk.
So when his name is on the marquee you can’t sit in the front row and complain about secondhand smoke.
To Dave’s credit, he recognizes the power imbalance of only him holding on the mic and allowing for an audience Q&A. I just wish someone called him out for that lame childish impression of a Chinese person – now that was offensive. Luckily, we know his Asian wife has probably said, “Yo Dave, you dead wrong!”
While I should end there, it’s only right I give a quick epilogue:
If objective, when you re-watch it, you hear the half-baked jokes that detractors didn’t like. You can feel the punch lines hitting different from those who felt disparaged. But he wasn’t punching down. For me, the questionable landings felt more like LeBron missing consecutive dunks in the All-Star game. A spectator now has the playful right to scream “You suck!” Speaking of LeBron sucking, posing the equality conundrum of how society should adjust to LeBron, Zion or any future powerhouse becoming transgender is not a joke on them or any chosen pronoun – it’s a riddle for all of us. So while we try to solve it, let’s be kind to each other.
Trevor is a creative mercenary and ethical lobbyist born and raised on Beale Street. Follow him on Twitter @trevbetter.