“Why would anyone care what their favorite comedian thinks after they saw a police officer kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds?”
It’s a valid question that Dave Chappelle asks in his new special 8:46, but it’s rhetorical. In times of rank uncertainty and biblical upheaval, when the ugliest parts of American life become most visible, it’s only natural to want to look away. To Black Films to Watch Right Now; to anti-racism reading lists; to your closest black friend; to the nearest hill, where just on the other side the right spokesperson is surely waiting to make perfect sense of all this. It’s a belief that persists from the days when someone like Walter Cronkite could get on television and condemn U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and instantly change the hearts and minds of even the most hawkish Americans, including the president. Except those days never really were, and our rosy recollection of them coddles us. Even as we feel the heat of a burning world on our face, we cling to the notion that building a better one doesn’t require direct action, just good intentions and the right words.
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, a refrain among the mildly conscious was that “silence is violence”—that choosing not to speak against injustice was tantamount to complicity. While the country burned earlier this month, CNN anchor Don Lemon, like so many frustrated others, urged the celebrities to put down their cheese plates and descend from their cloud castles to say something; the unfortunate result was a whole bunch of famous people just saying anything. As a big fat for instance, the day before 8:46 was released, actor Kristen Bell did a hilariously self-effacing interview with the Associated Press about her children’s book that takes limp aim at discrimination with an allegory: It’s about a purple person who looks for similarities before differences.
So honestly, who cares what these people have to say? Chappelle is seriously asking. 8:46 is less a comedy half-hour than it is a scolding. Nods of agreement were more common in the audience than laughter, and the applause was uneasy. It was filmed on June 6 in Beavercreek, Ohio, 12 days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. The opening minutes of the special—which is hosted on the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube channel—show dusk pouring over quiet wheat fields, and eager concertgoers arriving at the secluded amphitheater in pairs. Uncomfortable crowd shots showed the socially distanced attendees laughing (?) in branded face masks. They weren’t explicitly told that they’d wasted a trip to the boonies, but Chappelle cut an exhausted figure and, in the early minutes of the show, expressed confusion about how anyone could be desperate for his interpretation of reality when “the streets” are already speaking for themselves. “Answer me, do you want to see a celebrity right now?”
With that said, it is difficult to divine what the point of 8:46 is, and I’m not sure Chappelle knows it either. “This is weird, and less than ideal circumstances to do a show,” he said with resignation of someone trapped between a rock and a much harder rock. What, exactly, is he supposed to do for us? His social critique is often as exacting as ever, but it’s the best he has to offer. A personal anecdote about the abject terror of experiencing the Northridge earthquake, which lasted less than a minute, illustrated in painful detail just how long eight minutes and 46 seconds is. In a digression about Chris Dorner’s killing spree and subsequent death, he managed not only to make me laugh but to throw the swift response of protesters nationwide into sharp relief. Hundreds of cops descended on Dorner because he killed one of their own; now “the wrath of God” is descending on law enforcement across the country because they killed one of ours. However, these are both fairly simple revelations. In fact, aside from a story about how Chappelle was named for his great-grandfather, who formed a delegation to confront Woodrow Wilson on racism, and a chilling anecdote about being pulled over by the same cop who would kill John Crawford the following night at a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek in 2014, there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard or seen on Twitter already.
That’s not to say it isn’t “good” or that I’m unsupportive of what the special is trying to do. I’m sure he swayed that imaginary person who needs Dave Chappelle to tell them that institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence are bad, and the special is comforting in its way, because he’s as angry and confused as you are. But then, he mentions only black men killed by police—if Chappelle intended this as a eulogy, it falls short of eulogizing all black lives. The special is also tainted with casual misogyny, which distracts from otherwise worthy rebukes of Candace Owens and Laura Ingraham. There also appears to have been a missing segment from his bit on Don Lemon and the celebrity-industrial complex that referenced the CNN anchor’s sexuality in a derisive way.
Ultimately these are not novel offenses for Chappelle, nor are they insignificant missteps. But unpacking them here would miss the essential message of 8:46—we shouldn’t even care what Dave Chappelle has to say right now. But for what it’s worth, “You kids are excellent drivers,” he said. “I’m comfortable in the back seat of the car.”