In Dave Chappelle’s ‘8:46’ lives the spirit of James Baldwin

Chappelle’s surprise special is a necessary examination of America, and himself

Twenty-two minutes in. That’s roughly when James Baldwin’s fierce 1968 Esquire interview graduates from hovering presence to co-pilot in 8:46, Dave Chappelle’s imperfectly eloquent new set for Netflix reacting to the protests and death of George Floyd.

It’s at that point — roughly three-quarters of the way through — when Chappelle claps back at conservative commentator Candace Owens’ vile comment that Floyd was “neither a martyr or a hero,” with one of the most powerful statements of his hall of fame career.

“We’re not desperate for heroes in the black community,” he said. “Any n—a that survives this nightmare is a god damned hero.”

Being a survivor, though, comes with the burden of telling the story. Chappelle’s 2020 differs from Baldwin’s 1968, but also mirrors it in multiple ways. Fifty-two years apart, America crescendoed in an angry, deadly moment. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin captured black America’s rage and made sense of the violence that had engulfed the country.

He was vehemently offended at how the country could act astonished when it had been the reason for the anger in its streets. To Baldwin, it wasn’t up to him to justify the fire from men and women who looked like him. Rather, it was up to America to acknowledge its own sins for the crimes inflicted on his people.

What separates 8:46 from anything he’s done before is how he delivered the message. The jokes were few and far between because, honestly, there’s very little to find humorous these days. Truth, however, was in surplus.

Accepting Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal in 2018, Chappelle noted that Baldwin had always been one of his favorite writers because he “managed to tell white people what they feel like to be around.” The 8:46 special isn’t necessarily telling white people what it feels like to be around them. But it is Chappelle speaking directly to nonblack folks, who comprise a good chunk of his audience in Beavercreek, Ohio, on June 6, what it feels like to be driven to the point of no return by them.

Baldwin was almost offended by the interviewer’s first question: “Can we still cool it?For Baldwin, the idea that was even incrementally possible was laughable. The 1960s was a decade defined by bloodshed, not only with the Vietnam War, but with high-profile assassinations of an American president, civil rights icons, Freedom Riders and young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. It was the decade that made Muhammad Ali the most hated black man in the country. So “cooling it” wasn’t Baldwin’s or his people’s cross to bear.

“It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets,” Baldwin responded.It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders.”

Baldwin died long before the birth of social media. Chappelle, also, rose to prominence before the social media era. Like Richard Pryor before him, Chappelle’s lauded stand-ups and sketch comedy show were more societal dissertation than a string of knee-slapping jokes. Yet, even with Chappelle’s star power, he still is a black man in America. The events, the hashtags and the marches over the last decade have left their mark on him.

American writer and activist James Baldwin in April 1972. To Baldwin, it wasn’t up to him to justify the fire from men and women who looked like him. Rather, it was up to America to acknowledge its own sins for the crimes inflicted on his people.

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images

Much has been debated about why Floyd’s death ignited worldwide protests. That, for whatever reason, it became the “chickens coming home to roost” moment Malcolm X prophesied decades earlier.

The truth is, since 1900, Congress has gone back and forth on whether lynching should be a federal crime. Next month marks a decade since the guilty verdict in the trial of the officer who killed Oscar Grant — coincidentally delivered just hours before NBA star LeBron James (whom Chappelle defends in 8:46 from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham’s “shut up and dribble” comments) announced his “Decision” to join the Miami Heat. Grant’s 2009 killing at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California, was arguably the first recorded death to make waves in the social media era. In the years following came Trayvon Martin, the undeniable shifting point in social media awareness, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, John Crawford III, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless more.

Chappelle’s new stand-up is time-stamped with Floyd’s death. Its title earmarks an alpha and omega, connecting the comedian’s time of birth to how long police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck. Holistically, however, 8:46 is a ghost story about lives lost at the hands of those entrusted to “protect and serve.” Lives lost that never became front-page news nor inspired protests outside of the houses where their loved ones wept over their pictures.

Police brutality, profiling and culture have long been topics for Chappelle. His bit on 2000’s Killin’ Them Softly, which examined black America’s inherited fear of the police, is one of comedy’s greatest profiles on the subject.

What separates 8:46 from anything he’s done before is how he delivered the message. The jokes were few and far between because, honestly, there’s very little to find humorous these days. Truth, however, was in surplus.

In less than 30 minutes, Dave Chappelle’s polarizing narrative in 8:46 encapsulates 2020 in a way no other creative has come close to.

Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

He responded to CNN anchor Don Lemon’s call for celebrities to speak out by saying a celebrity’s take wasn’t needed and the worldwide protests were ignited by everyday men and women who had reached a breaking point. Whatever he had to say, he surmised, paled in comparison. He went on to nod to one of his funniest bits on celebrity culture and a classic shot at Ja Rule from 2004’s For What It’s Worth. (Lemon later said he agreed with Chappelle.)

Chappelle’s set posted on Netflix a day after a slew of white celebrities posted a collective “I Take Responsibility” video detailing ways they intended to combat racism toward African Americans. However well-intended, the montage came off as white guilt for a reckoning they never recognized would arrive.

For much of his impassioned soliloquy, Chappelle focuses on the one-sided relationship America has with its black citizens. It sounded much like the logic Baldwin employed 52 years earlier. “If … the American black man is going to be a free person in this country,” Baldwin said, “the people of this country have to give something up. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Never was this more apparent than in Chappelle’s riff about Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, who had been fired from the department in 2008 and infamously went on a killing rampage in 2013. The massive manhunt for Dorner proved violent, including eight Los Angeles police officers shooting a pickup truck in which a mother and daughter were injured while delivering newspapers. The officers were never charged. Before his death, Dorner released a manifesto explaining his actions. In it, he mentioned Chappelle among many other celebrities, politicians and athletes he admired.

“They found him in Big Bear [California]. He was hiding in a cabin … no less than 400 officers answered the call. And, boy, let me tell you something, they Swiss cheese’d this n—a,” Chappelle recounted in 8:46. “And you know why 400 cops showed up? Because one of their own was murdered. So how the f— can’t they understand what’s going on in these streets?”

People walk by a mural of the late novelist and activist James Baldwin in Graffiti Alley in Toronto on June 11. The well-known alleyway is being painted with prominent black figures and messages of solidarity against anti-black racism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

COLE BURSTON/AFP via Getty Images

In less than 30 minutes, Chappelle’s polarizing narrative encapsulates 2020 in a way no other creative has come close to. Not once does he mention the coronavirus, but not once is it necessary. Each member of the audience was wearing a mask. He could’ve easily made crude jokes, he said, but each segment, each subject, each word had to matter.

Still, we can and should credit him as one of our most respected commentators on race, black life and the pressure American systems place on that, while also holding him accountable for missed opportunities. At least in the moment, black women — whom he has expressed vocal support for in the past — didn’t appear to be in his thoughts.

Chappelle isn’t a perfect man. Being flawed is almost a prerequisite in comedy. But mentioning Taylor or Tony McDade would have spoken volumes.

Taylor was shot to death by police weeks before Floyd, but, unlike in the Floyd case, the cops who killed her have not been charged. McDade was a black trans man killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 27.

Chappelle’s commentary on the trans community has come under fire. And black women are far from immune from police violence. Very few pieces of art carry the cultural cachet of a Dave Chappelle stand-up. What he says not only matters, it creates a historical curriculum in real time. Criticizing him for omitting mention of them doesn’t take away from the potency of 8:46. It acknowledges how an already powerful moment in time could have been even more so.

This month, a Washington Post poll revealed that nearly 70% of Americans believed Floyd’s death resulted from a systemic problem with policing as opposed to 29% who believe it was an isolated incident. Just six years ago, in 2014, more than half called police killings of unarmed black people isolated incidents.

“Every time, including the time the president was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman,” Baldwin told Esquire in 1968. “No one can face the fact that this madness has been created deliberately.”

Chappelle’s storytelling is one of his inimitable skills, putting him in the company of names such as musicians Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Tupac Shakur and novelist Toni Morrison. Near the start of 8:46, Chappelle tells an anecdote about how he feared for his life during the Northridge earthquake in January 1994. It lasted, he surmised, 35 seconds — a fraction of the time Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. When Chappelle watched the infamous video, he noted it was the second time he’d ever heard a black man call for his mother in his final moments. The first was when his father called for his grandmother.

Twenty minutes later, we learn the second part of the story. From the years leading to the Civil War up until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, less than a handful of black people had visited the White House. One was Frederick Douglass. Another was William David Chappelle, who was born into slavery, and who, along with a delegation of black Americans, visited President Woodrow Wilson to protest the lynching of a black man in South Carolina following a monetary dispute. His wife was the same woman Chappelle’s father called out to in his final moments.

Both Chappelle’s show and Baldwin’s interview are moments of self-reflection from two men, in the same country, at two different junctures, attempting to figure out not only their purpose, but their people’s. America has long known of its dependency on racism, and the fear and obedience it commanded. Baldwin and Chappelle both took on the task of putting white America in its historical place.

“All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history, which is not your past, but your present,” Baldwin said near the end of the Esquire interview. “Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language. … That’s why you keep saying, what does the Negro want? It’s a summation of your own delusions, the lies you told yourself. You know exactly what I want!”

In his own exit statement, Chappelle noted that history instructs the present. “These things are not old … it’s today,” he said. “These n—as say why isn’t Dave Chappelle saying anything — because David Chappelle understands what the f— he’s seeing! And the streets will speak for themselves whether I am alive or dead.”

How does black America “cool it” in 2020? There are many places to look. Just don’t look to Baldwin and Chappelle.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.