Dave Chappelle Offers Surprising Message of Unity in SF Appearance

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Dave Chappelle performing during his new special, 'The Closer.' (c. Mathieu Bitton)

“Many of you may know this, but I love the Bay Area,” Dave Chappelle told the audience when he first took the stage at the Chase Center for the San Francisco premiere of his film, Untitled. “This is where I learned my craft, and Punchline is the first place I came after I left comedy the first time. I want to thank you all for being here tonight.”

His anticipated appearance came halfway through the show, after his film finished playing, to a largely receptive crowd of 19,000 people.

The documentary takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic’s deadly apex in the summer of 2020. It follows Chappelle, his family and his celebrity friends as they host a series of comedy shows in a Yellow Springs, Ohio, cornfield in hopes of raising the township’s morale.

The film, which will be shown in 10 North American cities, including the opening in San Francisco on Thursday night, is a mix of humor, poetry and music. It features A-list cameos, racial politics, casual family mingling, generational mentorship, complicated interactions with local government officials and lots of nose-swabbing and pro-vaccination messaging. 

Fan favorites like Michelle Wolf, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart, Tiffany Haddish, David Letterman, Erykah Badu and Ali Wong make appearances. And beyond the celebrities, we hear from anonymous locals at a virtual town hall meeting, coffee shop owners and Chappelle’s wife and children—all in a way I have yet to see him do in the past.

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It’s a snapshot of a precarious time and place—middle America amid a global health crisis, during a growing movement for racial justice—and how one comedian attempts to bring his people together to provide a therapeutic outlet for the public. 

At its worst, the film exists as a slightly redundant reminder of the most uncertain and unravelling moments of this pandemic. At its best, it represents a genuine blueprint for how those with social, economic and political clout—like Chappelle and his peers—can provide real spiritual relief for a community in need.

The documentary ends as abruptly as COVID arrived, with the makeshift venue in the film being torn down because of a surge in case numbers. A few of the guest comedians test positive and have to immediately bow out during the making of the film. That’s after multiple weeks of non-stop performances, which the film says produced over $9 million in local revenue.

And yet, it’s all much bigger than a single documentary can deliver, which has arrived at perhaps the worst possible intersection in Chappelle’s storied career, when many national organizations and prominent figures have harshly criticized the comedian’s recent Netflix special for its insensitivity towards the trans community. It’s not something that can be simply overlooked.

Underneath the polarized debates on social media, Black LGBTQ+ people are leading nuanced conversations about how Chappelle has missed the mark by pitting race issues against gender issues, and largely ignoring queer and trans people of color. In the San Francisco Chronicle, UC Berkeley law professor Russell K. Robinson lays out the hardships that LGBTQ+ Black people face, and the statistics are undeniable. Yet even while critiquing Chappelle, he urges us not to ignore the comedian’s points about white gay racism.

There is also Carolyn Wysinger, the board president of San Francisco Pride, who wrote a poignant, critical response to The Closer.

“I would like to affirm my personal support for the demands made by the Black trans community members who led last week’s Netflix walkout,” Wysinger wrote for SFGATE. “If Netflix is going to continue streaming a program that clearly gives permission to the world to publicly expose harmful beliefs, tropes, and stereotypes of the Black LGBTQ+ community, then Netflix owes that same community the opportunity to tell their stories and combat the hate.”

At its core, this conflict is an issue of representation, visibility, awareness, humanization and safety. If Chappelle can retain his global platform to make jokes and share his views about topics of his choice, then LGBTQ+ artists must also receive the same exposure, audience and promotion to express their opinions and truths, too.

Yet, Thursday night wasn’t about Chappelle and his fractured relationship to the trans and LGBTQ+ community.

It wasn’t even fully about comedy. In fact—besides the opening act from the night’s host, Jeff Ross, followed by a stand-up performance from Bay Area-raised comedian, Luenell Campbell—there was very little traditional comedy to be had. (Chappelle himself didn’t even perform a full routine, although he did make impromptu jokes during transitions between acts.)

Instead, the night surprisingly became a necessary moment for gathering, remembering, laughter and levity. Despite the thick tension surrounding him, Chappelle and his special guests managed to create a sense of joy and familial unity that formed the basis of his film, and which he clearly has a gift for.

We didn’t get Talib Kweli or John Mayer, though. Rather, Bay Area fans were treated to medicinal doses of Goapele and Raphael Saadiq, and the raw energy of Too $hort, Lil’ Jon, and E-40 sharing a stage. (Sadly, cameras were not allowed.) After each legendary individual’s performance, they stood side by side behind Chappelle while he delivered some closing words. 

“Take care of one another, look out for one another,” he urged the crowd with sincerity. 

E-40 plays Rolling Loud Bay Area on Sunday, September 16, 2018.
E-40 plays Rolling Loud Bay Area on Sunday, September 16, 2018. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Throughout the evening, he jokingly alluded to being “cancelled” but also said he didn’t care, as if the controversy was just in the media and not the reality of the matter. The truth of that is certainly doubtful, since there seems to be an undeniable outcry and sense of hurt coming from many LGBTQ+ viewers of color, and that must be acknowledged. 

In doubling down, I don’t believe Chappelle is going about the situation in the best way, and his documentary—which he says has been pulled from various festivals and venues—is certainly debuting at an unfavorable time for him. But I also don't believe pulling his specials or cancelling appearances, as some critics have called for, does anyone good. I attended his premiere specifically to hear him directly, and to feel the energy he was projecting into the crowd. And my takeaway, from my personal experience and from what I felt all around me—from people of all ages, cultures, genders, heights, styles, economic backgrounds and so forth—was a feeling of unison, if only for those few hours we sat together. 

Perhaps more than attending a film screening or wading in the ocean of commentary on this subject, shifting our collective attention towards voices beyond those in mainstream media—like San Francisco-based trans poet, Cal Calamia, as one example—would inform our public’s awareness more meaningfully. Comedy has opened a conversation that mainstream America hasn’t yet had—at least not in my lifetime—and I’m here for it. 

I admit that for too long I have only been focused on Chappelle’s point of view, like many young, straight men of color from my generation who were raised on his comedy. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say he has been the single most revered comic among the men of color in my life, and has in many ways informed our sense of society, racism, politics, humor and expression at large. But as I sit with myself and my thoughts after watching his documentary, and after seeing other childhood icons like Too $hort hold the stage with him and each other in such genuine fashion, I understand that I owe it to other communities, too, to shift my seat and begin to tune in more deeply to the voices I haven’t fully had the privilege to hear yet.

I am not tuning Dave Chappelle out completely. But I am turning up the volume on other voices in the room. Both of these realities can be true.

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Because what Untitled implicitly argues is that if we pull up a chair—even literally in the middle of an empty field—and put together a lineup of impassioned humans with a singular goal, something spectacular is bound to happen. Now, it’s time for the majority of us to sit back and listen.