There are many ways to intellectualize the unrest of the last several weeks, to jam what we’ve seen on TV screens into our preconceived boxes. Banging square ideological pegs into the round holes of reality is social media’s favorite pastime, and the last few weeks have been no different in that regard. And this is why Chappelle’s blast of unvarnished anger and sadness and hopelessness is so powerful. It clears away so much of the hemming and hawing that distorts these discussions.
After leading off with a riff about the Northridge Earthquake and how terrifying yet brief that experience was — “the quake couldn’t have been more than 35 seconds” — he gets into the heart of the matter: “This man kneeled on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.” Chappelle’s voice rises, his hands waving the notebook he’s carrying. This is not a practiced show of rage; it’s not a polished beat in a stand-up special designed to move to the next moment, to encourage the next laugh. It’s anger, pure and simple.
“Who. Are. You. Talking to. What are you signifying? That you can kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God. That’s what is happening right now,” Chappelle says. “It’s not for a single cop. It’s for all of it.”
If “8:46” is designed to do anything, it’s to scream that this isn’t an isolated incident, that the anger here is justified by years of mistreatment, in multiple jurisdictions, against numerous people.
“I don’t lie to you,” Chappelle says a bit later on, and that truth-telling has gotten him in some trouble in the last few years from folks who aren’t fond of the things he has to say. But that knowledge — that he’s not holding back, that he has earned enough money and enough credibility to say whatever he wants whenever he wants to whomever he wants — serves him, and us, well here. “The only reason people want to hear from people like me is because you trust me. You don’t expect me to be perfect.”
As Chappelle hops from killing to killing, from Eric Garner to Philando Castile to John Crawford, you can feel the awfulness of these connections, the way each seems to lead to the other, and to the next, and hooks back to the first. You can feel the crushing weight of death after death, and what that can do to a person who sees himself in each of the victims. It’s the unrefined, almost-but-not-quite stream-of-consciousness nature of the monologue that gives it its power, the way Chappelle talks about 8:46 being the time of his birth, the riff on his sadness at the death of Kobe Bryant and how Bryant’s final game may or may not have distracted the country from another orgy of violence.
It’s the anger. The justified, understandable rage. And it works largely because it’s unrefined and un-honed. Chappelle’s monologue called to mind Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” which always felt a little bit off to me, in part because the rage in that set was refined. It was a performance, one carefully calibrated like any stand-up set. It was designed to hit all the right notes about the modern sins of sexism and the like, signaling the emergence of Gadsby as a modern-day Jonathan Edwards, the preacher of a “puritan-minded radicalism,” as Hilton Als described her work. Chappelle’s no preacher. He’s not even really a comedian here. He’s just a guy we trust to speak his mind. And trust is in short supply these days.
“Depiction is not endorsement” is among the most important critical axioms; to that, I would add “understanding is not agreement.” One can listen to Chappelle’s monologue, his howl of rage, and understand it while disagreeing with the sentiment that burning down businesses is okay, that theft is a natural result of this anger. There’s a Venn diagram where people can agree that protest is good, police violence is bad, and unlawful rioting is unacceptable and needs to be stopped.
But I beg you to listen to Dave Chappelle and try to understand what he is saying, where he is coming from. I’m sure art — some great, some lousy — will emerge from this moment. None of it will ever be as pure as this effort by Chappelle. And that purity is what gives it its power……………