Netflix's new Dave Chappelle special '8:46' is no laughing matter

“8:46” is successful because it is less of a standup routine and more a group therapy session for Black America.
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By Brandon Manning, assistant professor of black studies at Texas Christian University

There’s nothing funny about the death of Black people. Dave Chappelle knows this, but his new Netflix special "8:46" is supposed to make us think as much as it makes laugh. The title references the amount of time that then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck before Floyd died.

On June 12, Chappelle released his roughly edited standup routine performed in Beavercreek, Ohio, complete with pandemic-compliant temperature checks, masks, and seats 6 feet apart.

Unlike some of his more recent trips to the stage, this latest show brilliantly captures the emotional stakes of the moment.

Chappelle is no stranger to controversy — recently for good reason. But unlike some of his more recent trips to the stage, this latest show brilliantly captures the emotional stakes of the moment. Chappelle’s storytelling has always been one of his greatest strengths, as evidenced by some of his most memorable sketches on “The Chappelle Show,” like “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” and “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories.” Where Chappelle gets into trouble is when he deviates from stories that center the emotional lives of Black folks in order to poke at the edges of political correctness.

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In his Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” it seemed Chappelle was out to offend everyone just for the sake of offending them. He’s toed the line between being a progressive comedian on race and a thinly veiled bigot on a shock comedy stage, and for parts of his audience this creates a deep chasm of unreconcilable difference. In short, he has lost a number of fans because of transphobia, insensitivity to sexual assault survivors, misogyny and homophobia.

But In “8:46,” Chappelle returns to form. Responding to CNN host Don Lemon’s call for celebrities to speak up about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd, Chappelle notes that “This is the streets talking for themselves, they don’t need me right now.” On the one hand, this is a classic Chappelle complaint. He hates how his celebrity forces him to speak when he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate. On the other hand, Chappelle recognizes why he feels compelled to speak on this issue. And that has everything to do with trust. “You don’t expect me to be perfect. But I don’t lie to you. I’m just a guy … and every institution that we trust lies to us.”

More than a critique of celebrity culture, though, Chappelle is highlighting how frustrating and tiring it is for Black people to try and make Black deaths legible and accessible for those who don’t want to understand it. It is an open wound that is never given time to heal.

Thus, “8:46” is successful because it is less of a standup routine and more a group therapy session. Chappelle shows how and why these deathsare personal for Black people by seamlessly interweaving the relationship between Floyd’s death and his own family. The number 8:46 is the time of Chappelle’s birth, a coincidence that haunts him, and he relates Floyd’s plea for his dead mother to his own father, who cried out for Chappelle’s mother on his deathbed. In a country that seems to make a spectacle out of the killings of black people. Chappelle reminds us that Black people intimately feel the loss of life.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t funny, something that Chappelle admittedly notes at the beginning of his show. He begins his routine by thanking the young protesters driving the movement and connecting Floyd’s death to the deaths of John Crawford III, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin with a brief informal history. Unfortunately, Chappelle falls for the trap of focusing only on the vulnerability of black men and boys, overlooking Brittney Cooper’s article: “Why are Black Women and Girls Still an Afterthought.”

Chappelle leaves behind his usually cool demeanor and openly embraces grief, despair and rage. One of the most impassioned parts of the performance is when Chappelle focuses on Derek Chauvin keeping his hand in his pocket, even as he kneels on Floyd’s neck. Chauvin was conveying a message about the worth of a Black man’s life in America, says the clearly enraged comedian. “Who are you talking to,” he asks rhetorically.

Chappelle interprets Chauvin’s gesture as if it were a spoken statement. because Black people heard what Chauvin was saying. We’ve been hearing these kinds of statements. Which is why as much as this routine was about grief and death, it was also about being fed up. Chappelle’s “Who are you talking to?” is what you say just before a fight breaks out. And Chappelle is fighting-mad — his clenched fists apparent on stage.

In the end, Chappelle recognizes that this isn’t his movement, and that may have been the most successful aspect of the performance.

Alongside these notable names of the Black Lives Matter movement, Chappelle also highlights the killing of five police officers at a BLM march in Dallas, as well as the officers killed in an ambush attack in Louisiana. He puts these stories in conversation with the vulnerability that Black people feel in this country every day. Chappelle’s militant conclusion echoes Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary,” and speaks to this generation’s broader sense of despair.

In the end, Chappelle recognizes that this isn’t his movement, and that may have been the most successful aspect of the performance. The Black Lives Matter movement is both too nuanced and too broad in its scope for Chappelle to be on its front lines. Around the same time as I watched Chappelle’s video, I heard the names of Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, two Black transgender women who have been recently murdered. Black Trans Lives Matter. We still need to #SayHerName, Breonna Taylor,and the other women that have died at the hands of police.

For years, the way that we talk about the killings of black people in this country has reinscribed patriarchal structures. Chappelle can’t speak to these issues or for these women. But even with these shortcomings, his performance, at its core, calls out white supremacy and police brutality while articulating the emotional toll of being Black in America.

Chappelle didn’t allow us to laugh to keep from crying — instead he forces us to continue to sit with our anguish. The real joke is that so many white Americans still don’t understand our rage.

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