Dave Chappelle lets the streets speak for themselves in 8:46, his new Netflix special. “Like it or not, it’s history,” he warns us. It is the first mainstream concert event in North America since the COVID-19 lockdown. It is also Chappelle’s first event since a cop knelt on the neck of a black man named George Floyd until he died, sparking protests and uprisings which have resonated internationally. Chapelle is “very proud” of the protesters. “These kids are excellent drivers,” he says but he is “comfortable in the backseat of the car.”
When Chappelle was honored with the 2019 Mark Twain Prize in Washington, he thanked his mother for educating him on the griot, “a person in Africa who is charged with keeping the stories of the village.” A griot’s death is like a library burning down, but the oral tradition is passed on. The streets “don’t need me right now. I kept my mouth shut,” Chappelle says. He’d stated he didn’t want to be a celebrity voice talking over the protestors, and he illustrates it best by asking: “Why would anyone care what their favorite comedian thinks after they saw a police officer kneel on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds?”
That number is very personal to Chappelle, whose birth certificate reads he was born at 8:46. Almost everything about the death of George Floyd is personal to Chappelle. He sees Floyd’s face in his family, hears his voice in his father, and will hold his memory like a griot, making sure this moment in history is remembered for generations to come. Chappelle also cares what happens now, and Netflix’s YouTube page includes a link to the Equal Justice Initiative, which is trying to bring a legal end to mass incarceration, racial inequality in prisons, and the death penalty. Its founder, Bryan Stevenson, was the main character in last year’s Just Mercy.
8:46 was filmed in Chappelle’s hometown Yellow Springs, Ohio, on June 6. It was partially inspired by CNN anchor Don Lemon who called out Hollywood on Twitter for being “strangely quiet” in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, while “young people are out there standing on a platform on the edge of an abyss by themselves.” The special begins with the outdoor concert being set up, specially arranged for social distancing, because of the “weird and less than ideal circumstances to do a show.” This is the first concert since the lockdown began in March. Visitors get their temperatures taken. The audience is masked, although there are not many reaction shots. For the most part, the camera maintains a stable lock on the stage, with occasional footage edited in. Chappelle sips from a red Solo cup, peeks at his black joke notebook, and has trouble lighting his cigarette in the outdoor space. While he doesn’t let it get in the way of the performance, someone in the audience should have tossed him a better lighter.
Chappelle is a storyteller. He uses the fear he felt during his first earthquake to emphasize the story of George Floyd, allowing his personal experience to pale greatly in any comparison. “I was in LA. I had smoked a joint, and I was watching the movie Apocalypse Now, like just after 4 o’clock in the morning … and I was certain that I might very possibly die,” he says. The terror he felt during the Northridge earthquake “couldn’t have been more than 35 seconds,” Chappelle says. “This man kneeled on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds,” Chappelle tells his audience. “Can you imagine that? This kid thought he was going to die, he knew he was going to die. He called for his dead mother.”
There are more killings by cops than the 24-hour news cycle can report. Some violations lead to protests because specific incidents get national exposure. There’s been no change as one atrocity piles on the next. But the streets know. Chappelle isn’t quite the concrete griot. He’s just making sure the right names are scratched in the cement. He lists black men killed by the police: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin, and Philando Castile. He points out how John Crawford III’s death in an Ohio Walmart was overshadowed by the killing of Michael Brown four days later.
Chappelle comes to grips with how black officers, trained in combat, “believed they were fighting acts of terror” when they went after their fellow cops. Christopher Dorner, a black LAPD officer who ambushed two police officers, called Chappelle a genius in his manifesto. Chappelle was scheduled to do the Grammys that year, and the police asked if they could give him some protection because his name was mentioned. “Yeah but he likes me,” Chappelle says, asking if the cops needed anything. It’s a great comedy turnaround but the ultimate punch line makes you choke on the laugh.
On the right, conservative political line, the first reaction to police violence is to demonize the dead, and Chappelle will have none of that. He calls Candace Owens, the “most articulate idiot I’ve ever seen in my life.” He watched the black pro-Trump activist “try to convince white America, ‘Don’t worry about it. He’s a criminal anyway.’” Owens said Floyd was no hero and the protesters should have picked a better subject. But the fact remains, it doesn’t matter what Floyd did. He was chosen by the cops. “They killed him. And that wasn’t right. So he’s the guy.”
Chappelle occasionally dips into his own history during the special, which works because he is still coming to grips with a larger picture. But also because he’s passed off the larger brush strokes to the protesters, and is here to fill in the finer details. He is as traumatized by the same events as everyone else. He confesses it took him a week to watch the video of Floyd’s murder because he would never unsee it. He’s not there because of a single cop who you can kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and not believe he would face the wrath of God. He is there for everything which led up to it.
It is still his platform, and people are still tuning in because of his name and reputation for transparency. When he tells the audience he couldn’t accept a Grammy Award on the day Kobe Bryant died because he couldn’t stop crying, his admission is completely vulnerable. When he calls out Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham for telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” he is both defending a friend and a larger sports accomplishment. But when he name-drops Azealia Banks, he’s just being funny.
When Chappelle asks if anyone cares what Ja Rule, or any celebrity, thinks about the killing of George Floyd, he is referencing what he said in his 2004 comedy special For What It’s Worth. After 9/11, everyone wanted the rapper’s opinion. “I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now,” Chappelle said then. Now, Dave is the one people are going to for answers and he points them back to the voice of the streets. He’s learned enough to step back and let the story be written by the people. He knows history, and knows not all the players have to have recognizable names to make the books or write new chapters.
In his first Saturday Night Live monologue after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Chappelle said “I’m gonna give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.” This special highlights how little a chance the current administration has given the disenfranchised. In that same opening monologue, Chappelle said the White House hosted no black voices between Frederick Douglass’ visit and the Roosevelt presidency. “But it happened one other time before” he corrects in 8:46. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson received a delegation of African-Americans led by Chappelle’s great-grandfather, William David Chappelle. They were there to protest the lynching of a rich black man in South Carolina.
History repeats itself and that’s what Chappelle wants to stop. “Every institution that we trust lies to us,” and Chappelle may not be perfect but tells his truth. He is exhausted but he is always provocative. He doesn’t dip into irony. Chappelle is usually a cool, calm, and downplayed performer, but here his anger is palpable. He is giving compelling cultural commentary and expanding the role of the standup comedian beyond laughs and applause. Kevin Hart told The Joe Rogan Experience that Chappelle passed Richard Pryor as the Greatest of All Time with his freedom to say fuck you to the corporate demands on his comic delivery system and this special adds to his GOAT status. It is not polished, it is not “refined,” as Chappelle himself notes in his introduction. But it is a perfect snapshot of the time.
This is Chappelle’s first filmed public appearance since winning a Grammy for his 2019 Netflix special Sticks and Stones. Chappelle speaks without a filter. He is unapologetically willing to offend, whether he casts doubt on Michael Jackson’s accusers or invokes microaggressive backlash. He doesn’t mention any Black women or trans people who were victims of police violence, and he has received some criticism for that.
8:46 isn’t comedy. Originally billed as “Dave Chappelle & Friends: A Talk With Punchlines,” there are no routines. There are no bits. There are some funny lines, but no jokes. It’s downright poignant. “This is really not funny at all,” Chappelle admits before offering more pussy jokes on top of the stanky ones he tossed at Candace Owens. But it is important, historic and a landmark. 8:46 is meaningful, and Chappelle does it on his own terms. “This is the last stronghold of civil discourse,” Chappelle concludes, adding to an oral history which spans from Lenny Bruce through Dick Gregory and will continue as long as standups stand up. Chappelle, whose son got tear-gassed during a protest, tells the story so it is not forgotten. But he cannot take away the pain and he cannot fix the cracks in the pavement. It’s like asking for healing from an open wound. “Enjoy your riots!”
Dave Chappelle’s 8:46 is available on Netflix and YouTube.