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Dave Chappelle’s Surprise “8:46” Special Questions the Role of Public Figures in Social Justice Movements

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Comedian, Dave Chappelle, wearing an all black outfit, sitting on a stool, while presenting his take on the black lives matter movement.
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Dave Chappelle, the highly renowned and notoriously reclusive comedian, surprised fans (and perhaps the whole country) when Netflix released an unexpected special on their platform in the late hours of June 12th.

The special, titled “8:46,” was also posted on platforms such as Youtube and Facebook soon after. Though only 27 minutes in length, Chappelle’s special covers topics relating to George Floyd’s tragic murder by a police officer and the upheaval of the nation that followed it, including the Black Lives Matter protests that happened in all 50 states and in many countries around the world. 

Chappelle is no stranger to social commentary, and he usually executes sets that revolve around critiquing (and mocking) social customs and entire identity groups with confidence and credence.

However, in the special, he appears to be noticeably distraught throughout the entirety of the performance. There are fewer jokes than there are emotional bursts that loop into purposeful digressions. “This isn’t funny at all,” Chappelle notes at one point, recognizing the weight of the subject matter and the lack of comedy in what is supposed to be a comedian’s special, but he does not offer any apologies.

Instead, he devotes long moments of his monologue to commenting on the media coverage following George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests, and he focuses on criticizing conservative commentators such as Candace Owens and Laura Inghram, who minimize issues of racial injustice and police brutality.

Chappelle takes a particular interest in responding to CNN’s Don Lemon, who famously called for celebrities to use their platforms to speak out about the death of George Floyd.

Lemon criticizes some celebrities, by name, for staying silent in an effort to protect their “brand.” He claims that each public figure with a platform has a responsibility to put out a statement, publicly support the protesters on their social media accounts, and avoid being silent on issues of police brutality and public protest.

Chappelle disagrees. He insists that he doesn’t need to speak—that no celebrity needs to speak—lest they risk having their voices be heard over the sound of the publicly led protests. He further implies that the public, especially those protesting in the streets around the country and the world, don’t benefit much from celebrities giving their personal opinions on these issues.

Comedian, Dave Chappelle, wearing an all black outfit, sitting on a stool, holding a microphone.
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Chappelle poses the following question regarding our priorities: “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?”

Chappelle admonished against the idea that he should “step in front of the streets and talk over the work these people are doing.”

Chappelle has a point—not only would shifting the focus from the protesters on the streets to the celebrities in their homes be detrimental to the overall progress of the Black Lives Matter movement, but we also shouldn’t care about what celebrities have to say, unless their actions are backing up their supposed “beliefs.”

Chappelle’s critique of the “silence is violence” mindset in regard to social justice movements comes at a time when we see more and more celebrities being criticized, perhaps rightfully so, for not educating themselves on social issues and publicly advocating for them. “I kept my mouth shut,” he says, “and I’ll still keep my mouth shut, but don’t think that my silence is complicit.” 

While there is room for valid criticism for those who are willfully ignorant, the insistent calls for everyone to speak out about racial injustice and police brutality have led more public figures to stumble and fall than to uplift the cause.

Take, for instance, the case of Madonna, who posted a tweet of her (black) adopted son dancing to a Michael Jackson song in order to “honor” George Floyd, or that of David Guetta, who faced backlash for remixing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a tribute to George Floyd, or any of the other dozens of celebrities who have been mocked for their subpar, and sometimes outright offensive, responses to George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests.

The truth of the matter is that when we pressure public figures who have very little knowledge about these social justice movements to become outspoken advocates for them, we are opening ourselves up to, at best, confusion and disappointment and, at worst, outrage.

Comedian, Dave Chappelle, wearing a black leather jacket and glasses waves his hands in the air in front of a black car outside.
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Even when the celebrity is educated on the subject matter, there is a time and place for Twitter notepad statements and Instagram black square posts. “The streets are talking for themselves,” Chappelle says. “They don’t need me right now.”

This is not to say that we should have zero expectations for the role of public figures in social justice movements, nor that every celebrity is stumbling in their response.

There have been plenty of celebrities who have utilized their platforms to uplift black voices, who have been on the streets protesting and/or have provided aid to those protesting, and who have donated large sums of money to memorial funds, legal aid organization, bailout funds, and other organizations that are on the frontlines of fighting police brutality and racial injustice.

Even though he has always been outspoken about racial injustice and police brutality, Chappelle is right when he states that the protesters don’t need him right now—they don’t need him or any other celebrity to speak empty words into the echo-chamber of similar thought that is the social media scene in the time of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.

What they need is direct action, all of the time, not just when speaking out about these injustices in trendy ways, or when it is expected of them; they need support that has some weight behind it—that of educated advocacy, physical presence that does not center around their status, and their money and influence being levied in ways that will lead to notable change.

Above all, celebrities need to know their limits. A movement that began centered around the people should always have “normal” people at its center—it should never devolve into celebrity figureheads leading their followers to a victory (or demise) when their lack of education makes them blind to the actual impact of their actions.

Ultimately, “8:46” offers the audience a chance to reassess their priorities when it comes to the ways in which they wish to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and what they realistically can and should expect from some of the most visible people in the world.

The message at the core of “8:46” is that we shouldn’t even care what Dave Chappelle has to say right now; we should care about what the people marching in the streets, organizing protests every day, and leading legal and social battles to address racial injustice have to say.

Though there is a certain level of irony in Chappelle’s claims that he “kept [his] mouth shut and will continue to keep [his] mouth shut” when he has dedicated an entire special to George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, Chappelle’s dedication to centering the actions of those physically protesting is enough to excuse it. “I am very proud of you,” he says. “You kids are excellent drivers. I am comfortable in the back seat of the car.”

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