Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name? takes the comedian’s controversy home

July 7, 2022
Jonathon Wilson 0
Netflix, Streaming Service

Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name? aired on July 7, 2022. 

Netflix aren’t done with Dave Chappelle just yet.

And it only seems right. Since Netflix’s hefty commissioning of several back-to-back specials from Chappelle has largely been a focal point of the controversy those specials have generated, the streaming giant sticking by him even now, in a 40-minute acceptance speech at the Duke Ellington School of Arts in Washington, D.C., the theatre building of which was slated to be named after Chappelle even considering his lingering toxicity.

I bring this up since Chappelle does too. He mentions, specifically, how the school was still willing to put his name on its building, despite his last visit there in November being characterized by a literal queue of students who couldn’t wait to tell him how bigoted he was.

Like 8:46, Chappelle’s powerful mid-pandemic reaction to the unlawful killing of George Floyd, What’s in a Name isn’t a stand-up special, but it sort of becomes one anyway. Chappelle’s storytelling style, his slapping the mic against his thigh while laughing at his own jokes, his expert ability to gauge the temperament of the room and find the right buttons to push and the order in which to push them, means that him addressing a group of people becomes a special by default.

And as Chappelle finally says himself here, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent. It might seem like self-aggrandizement, but maybe it’s the right time for that. Many will perceive Chappelle’s constant focus on the backlash he has received as petty – another word he uses to describe himself – but it reads more to me like anger and frustration. He’s annoyed that he’s practicing a craft he has honed over decades, that many believe him to be a master of, and being told by kids too young to know any better than he was never any good in the first place.

“You cannot report on an artist’s work and remove artistic nuance,” says Chappelle, correctly in my view, comparing it to the idea of reporting on a large bunny shooting someone in the face without mentioning it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon. His point, in a roundabout way, is that he knows what he’s doing. “When you say I can’t say something, the more urgent is it for me to say it,” he continues. “It has nothing to do with what you are saying I can’t say. It has everything to do with my freedom of artistic expression.”

And this is the point Chappelle is building to. Given what he himself received from the Duke Ellington School, from his appreciation of art’s value as a commodity to the personal values that caused him to walk away from The Chappelle Show (and a mountain of money), he can’t stand the thought that his name simply being attached to a building there would contribute to anyone’s perceived oppression. That would be “untenable” to him, to once again use his own words.

So, Dave Chappelle doesn’t accept the theatre building being named after him. Instead, it’ll be called the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression. That’ll be the legacy he leaves behind for the students there.

Seems like a worthwhile one to me.

You can stream Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name? exclusively on Netflix.