If timing is everything in comedy, Dave Chappelle is beyond any criticism.
His immensely powerful new video about the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, “8:46,” dropped this morning, less than a day after the release of the cringe-inducing and widely panned public service announcement “I Take Responsibility,” filled social media streams with a procession of self-important celebrities insisting, in the words of actor Stanley Tucci, “I will no longer allow an unchecked moment. I will no longer allow hateful, hurtful words, jokes, stereotypes, no matter how big or small, to be uttered in my presence.”
Near the beginning of “8:46″—the length of time that Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck—Chappelle asks archly, “Do you want to see a celebrity right now? Do we give a fuck?” Praising the mostly peaceful protests against police brutality that have erupted across the country over the past few weeks, he says, “The streets talking for themselves. They don’t need me right now. I kept my mouth shut and I’ll still keep my mouth shut.”
Well, not exactly. What follows from Chappelle is a blast of righteous black, male rage that at its most intense calls to mind passages from Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Dick Gregory while showcasing Chappelle’s unparalleled ability to spin anger, observation, and humor into something raw and honest and deeply moving. “When I watched that tape” of George Floyd’s death, he says,
I understood this man knew he was going to die. People watched it, people filmed it. And for some reason that I still don’t understand, all these fucking police had their hands in their pockets. Who are you talking to? What are you signifying that you can kneel on man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God?
The protests, he says, are not about Floyd per se, whose checkered personal life is being exhumed by critics to deflect attention from police misconduct. “It’s not for a single cop. It’s for all of it. Fucking all of it.” In this, the Ohio-based comedian is speaking for a large majority of Americans. A new Washington Post poll finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the death of George Floyd “represents a systemic problem with policing, while just 29 percent say it’s an isolated incident.“
At least since his 2017 Netflix specials about the #MeToo movement and race, last summer’s controversial attack on cancel culture (“Sticks and Stones”), and his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Chappelle has emerged as the country’s most-courageous truth-teller. Thoughtful comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Louis C.K. have long aspired to such a status but typically die or go soft when things get too real, ugly, or personally embarrassing.
Not so with Chappelle, who walked away from a $50 million deal 15 years ago and eventually reemerged more in-your-face and popular than ever. “8:46” isn’t flawless, by any means. In his litany of black victims of police violence, he omits any mention of Breonna Taylor and he takes ultimately misplaced swipes at commentators such as Candace Owens and Laura Ingraham for defending police actions and focusing on black-on-black crime. However awful their comments may be, they are not the reasons that George Floyd died at the hands of police. He also gives too much credence to the claims of Chris Dorner, the disgraced former Los Angeles Police Department member who killed several cops before dying in a massive shootout.
But in the end, Chappelle’s performance expresses anguish and anger in a way to which attention must be paid, especially his warning that the country is running out of time and chances to peacefully enact what is now a large and growing consensus for police reform.