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Chappelle furor pits Netflix's commitment to artists against forward-thinking identity

Analysis: The streaming giant believes in the firebrand comedian’s creative freedom. It’s also linked to high-profile liberals and progressive causes.
Image: Dave Chappelle
Comedian Dave Chappelle in North Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 30, 2020.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file

On Monday afternoon, a Twitter account called @Most posted a message in honor of National Coming Out Day. “We support your right to come out however and whenever feels safe and right for you,” the tweet said in part.

In minutes, Twitter users replied to the tweet with charges of hypocrisy. The LGBTQ-themed account is run by Netflix — the same Netflix that is facing intense criticism for a new Dave Chappelle stand-up special that many critics have called transphobic and anti-LGBTQ.

Netflix is by no means the only media company or Hollywood studio to be accused of double standards or to find itself embroiled in knotty political, artistic and ethical quandaries. But the firestorm over Chappelle’s special nonetheless highlights a dilemma that might be unique to Netflix.

The streaming giant is committed to free expression and artistic license, but it has also publicly aligned itself with prominent liberals and progressive causes.

“We work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful,” Ted Sarandos, a co-CEO, said in a memo to staff obtained by The Verge.

In the memo, Sarandos pointed out that Netflix has stood by provocative content in the past, such as the French film “Cuties” and the TV series “13 Reasons Why.”

Netflix has burnished its brand in recent years by pitching itself as a port of call for filmmakers whose bold visions do not fit neatly into the franchise-driven Hollywood system and TV creators whose ambitions to break new ground are sometimes shunned by more traditionalist networks.

But on the other hand, the company has linked itself with high-profile Democrats and liberals — perhaps most notably Barack and Michelle Obama, through their production company — as well as progressive causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for transgender rights.

Two spokespeople for Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas' company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company’s movies and shows are not explicitly partisan, and Netflix has said there would not be a “political slant” to their programming.

Netflix has also established itself more generally as a destination for forward-thinking and diverse offerings.

Laverne Cox became one of the most visible transgender actors in the U.S. through her boundary-breaking role on “Orange is the New Black.” Ava DuVernay confronted the racism of the 1989 Central Park jogger case in “When They See Us.” Ryan Murphy, one of the most high-profile and prolific queer creators in the television business, exited Old Hollywood and joined the Netflix fold in 2018.

“The history of this moment is not lost on me,” Murphy said at the time.

In a statement Monday, GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, nodded to Netflix’s track record as a home for LGBTQ-themed art and entertainment while condemning company executives for giving a global platform to Chappelle’s latest special, “The Closer.”

“Netflix has a policy that content ‘designed to incite hate or violence’ is not allowed on the platform, but we all know that anti-LGBTQ content does exactly that,” the group said in a statement.

“While Netflix is home to groundbreaking LGBTQ stories, now is the time for Netflix execs to listen to LGBTQ employees, industry leaders, and audiences and commit to living up to their own standards,” the group added.

Raquel Willis, a writer and trans activist, said she believes Netflix needs to show “consistency around what it means to show up for the trans community.”

“You can’t just show up for the trans community in token pieces of content without looking at how transphobia exists within your company and within your content as a whole,” Willis said.

A spokesperson for Netflix declined to comment on the recent criticism and did not comment on the premise of this article.

Netflix is far from the only institution grappling with increasingly amorphous concepts like “cancel culture.” In the eyes of many critics, though, the Chappelle special poses a direct and urgent threat to transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

“The Closer” has reportedly stirred up tensions inside Netflix, as well. Jaclyn Moore, the showrunner of the Netflix series “Dear White People,” said last week that she would not work with the streamer “as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content."

The company suspended a transgender employee who criticized the Chappelle special on Twitter, although a spokesperson denied that her tweets were the reason for her suspension.

“Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly, and we support their right to do so,” the spokesperson said in part.

The employee tweeted Tuesday night that she had been reinstated by the company.

Netflix, like other companies across the world of media, operates in a cultural environment where rank-and-file employees feel increasingly emboldened to call out corporate decisions they dislike.

The same dynamic has been playing out in the book publishing industry, for example. In a tweet Monday, Franklin Leonard, a producer and the founder of The Black List, a yearly roundup of unproduced screenplays, compared the Netflix drama to a recent book world flashpoint.

“A fascinating dynamic that recalls the Hachette walkout last year and continues to invite BIG questions over corporate cultural production and distribution,” Leonard said, referring to employees who protested the Hachette Book Group’s decision to publish Woody Allen’s autobiography. (Hachette later nixed its plans.)

But as the furor over Chappelle reached a new level of intensity Monday, some observers wondered if Netflix might be minding the proverbial bottom line.

Chappelle, polarizing as he may be, remains one of the most popular comedians in the country and even received a standing ovation at a star-studded event at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl last week. “The Closer,” for its part, took the No. 3 spot on Netflix’s five most-watched movies and shows this week.

The comedian’s value to the company is just a Google search away. Chappelle, 48, reportedly raked in $20 million for each of the six specials he has released exclusively on the biggest streaming service in the world.

“Unfortunately, capitalism reigns supreme,” Willis said. “They’re going to do what is most profitable at all times.”