I happen to be a big fan of comedian Dave Chappelle, but he got into a lot of trouble on social media for his comments in his show “The Closer,” which dealt with transsexual issues. But his comments were edgy, as they tend to be with him, and after listening to “The Closer” I didn’t see them as transphobic, nor do I believe, based on his past behavior, that he is transphobic. He’s a comedian, and, being of the Lenny Bruce school, he skirts the edge of the offensive to make people think.
The social-media comments hurt him, as Datebook reports, and when he was asked to give a talk at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., which was naming its auditorium after him, he decided that he didn’t want that naming to happen, at least for the time being:
Chappelle proposed that the theater be named the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression, and then said that his name would be added later, only when and if the school community was ready.
His talk at Ellington has now been converted into a 39-minute defense of freedom of speech and appears as a Netflix special called called “What’s in a name?” Sadly, I can’t watch it as I don’t get Netflix, but one reader wrote to me with big kudos for the talk (I’m not sure if this was his first talk at Ellington or a return talk):
But I ended up watching this speech by Chappelle now available on Netflix, and don’t want to miss sharing with you that I was very impressed. Besides many things, this is a thoughtful, heartfelt, passionate justification and defense of freedom of speech. That’s why I think you and your audience would appreciate it a lot. But I am pretty sure you’re not on Netflix. So it may be a bit of a challenge to get access.
Indeed, but you can watch if if you’re a Netflix member, and then let me know how it is. I’m just calling it to your attention.
In “What’s in a Name?” Chappelle returns to the school to announce the new name and reminisce about his time at Duke Ellington. But before long, he wades back into controversy by reflecting on his previous visit to the school. He says those who were offended by the material in “The Closer” missed its “artistic nuance.”
He directs most of his frustration at the students who challenged him during the Q&A session.
“All the kids were screaming and yelling,” he says. “I remember, I said to the kids, I go, ‘Well, OK, well what do you guys think I did wrong?’ And a line formed. These kids said everything about gender, and this and that and the other, but they didn’t say anything about art.”
Chappelle says his “biggest gripe” is that his words were taken out of context as the controversy erupted.
“You cannot report on an artist’s work and remove artistic nuance from his words,” he says. “It would be like if you were reading a newspaper and they say, ‘Man Shot in the Face by a Six-Foot Rabbit Expected to Survive.’ You’d be like, ‘Oh my God,’ and they never tell you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
There are few jokes in the special as Chappelle digs into his role as the victim, blaming the students for maligning what he describes as his “freedom of artistic expression.” He also suggests that his critics were manipulated by outside forces.
“When I heard those talking points coming out of these children’s faces, that really, sincerely hurt me,” Chappelle says. “Because I know those kids didn’t come up with those words. I’ve heard those words before. The more you say I can’t say something, the more urgent it is for me to say it. And it has nothing to do with what you’re saying I can’t say. It has everything to do with my right, my freedom, of artistic expression. That is valuable to me. That is not severed from me. It’s worth protecting for me, and it’s worth protecting for everyone else who endeavors in our noble, noble professions.”
If you’ve seen it, weigh in below.