On the YouTube page for the video, released through Netflix’s comedy channel, there’s a simple note: “From Dave: Normally I wouldn’t show you something so unrefined, I hope you understand.” It also refers viewers to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson that works to end mass incarceration and the death penalty.
The special, a 27-minute set filmed on June 6 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Chappelle lives, is incendiary and brilliant — part sermon, part history lesson, part eulogy. Certainly compared to his most recent specials, where he has toyed with disappointing anti-trans rhetoric and refused to seriously contend with the ways in which he has downplayed Black women’s claims of sexual assault, 8:46 is a relief and a return to form. It is a heartening reminder of what Dave Chappelle does best: tell a great story. This story is one of unfathomable cruelty and injustice, but also resilience.
Evoking the undeniably surreal times we are living in, the special begins with footage of chairs and tables spaced apart in a field, marked with chalk for social distancing purposes. A diverse array of masked attendees get their temperatures checked before filing into the outdoor theater. As night falls, Chappelle comes out onto the stage, clutching a red Solo cup and an unlit cigarette.
“This is weird and less than ideal circumstances to do a show,” he says early on. “But the only way to figure out if this shit will actually work is to do the goddamn show.”
The special is part sermon, part history lesson, part eulogy.
He spends a few minutes thanking the young people who have been protesting. “I’m very proud of you,” he says. “These kids are excellent drivers,” he adds. “I am comfortable in the backseat of the car.” It’s a great metaphor and an indication that Chappelle has been listening to the calls for celebrities to “say something,” and that he has been quiet by design. “Do you want to see a celebrity right now?” he quips later on. “Do we give a fuck what Ja Rule thinks? This is the streets talking for themselves. They don’t need me right now. I kept my mouth shut.”
Before he really starts the set, he makes a confession. “It’s hard to talk about George Floyd, so I’m not going to do it yet,” he says. He sits on a stool and lets out a heavy, bone-deep sigh, then consults his black book of jokes — another indication that this show is unpolished, less practiced. He pokes fun at a couple the camera doesn’t show us — two friends, one of whom is Black and the other white. “It’s going to be a quiet ride home,” he jokes. “Enjoy your riots!” he adds, with his signature twinkling grin.
The audience laughs, the first real laugh of the night.
“They’re not even really riots,” he says after the audience laughter has died down. “Have you noticed that?” He takes a sip from his Solo cup and then launches into a breathtaking discursive monologue about the killing of George Floyd.
“In like 1993, I’m not sure what year it was, but 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 what later would become to be known as the Northridge earthquake happened. It felt like it started in my apartment.” He goes on, “This shit was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying … and I was certain that I might very possibly die.” He adds, “That earthquake couldn’t have been more than 35 seconds.”
Then, holding his black book like a Bible, he suddenly switches lanes: “This man kneeled on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — can you imagine that?” The anger is palpable; it is jolting. He sounds like an AME pastor at the emotional climax of his sermon (though it should be noted that Chappelle converted to Islam in 1998). “He called for his mother; he called for his dead mother. I’ve only seen that once in my life. My father, on his death bed, called for his grandmother.” He hits each first syllable with emphasis, a percussive beat that stuns the audience.
There’s something about his anger in that moment that is so palpable. It is a clarifying anger.
He continues, noting that the cops in the video of George Floyd’s death have their hands in their pockets. “Who. Are. You. Talking to?” he asks of them, pausing deliberately between each word, dripping with utter malice. “What are you signifying, that you kneel on a man’s neck?” — here he drops to one knee — “for EIGHT MINUTES AND FORTY-SIX SECONDS, and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God?”
There’s something about his anger in that moment that is so palpable. It is a clarifying anger. At its core, this is what people are taking to the streets to protest — this clear and undeniable breach of injustice. There is a weariness to his anger, too. “It’s not for a single cop. It’s for all of it. Fucking all of it. I don’t mean to get heavy, but — we gotta say something!” That last “something” again emphasized, hit on with indignation.
Historically, Chappelle’s mode when talking about race and racism is one of ironic detachment. (“Have you ever had something happen to you that was so racist that you didn’t even get mad?” he joked in a special from 2000. “You were just like, ‘Goddamn, that was racist!’”) It’s obvious that he cares deeply, deeply about Black people and the sorry state of race relations in this country, but he is not Chris Rock, kinetic with theatrical outrage. In contrast, Chappelle tends to be subdued, dispositionally cool and observant. So to see Chappelle at the full height of his anger in this special is especially striking.
He goes on to talk about a few more historical figures; he has an extended bit about Christopher Dorner, the Black former LAPD police officer who killed a number of police officers in 2013 and who mentioned that he liked Chappelle in his manifesto. “Bit” might not be the operative word here; there are a few funny lines, but Chappelle is mostly telling a story, which he does in engrossing fashion.
Chappelle’s commentary on women (and how heinous those women’s viewpoints are) is less finely crafted. He gets a few potshots in at Candace Owens, a young Black woman who has become a rising star of conservative politics, referencing wanting to kick her “stinky pussy” after she suggested Floyd’s criminal record meant he shouldn’t be a hero. “I don’t know if it stinks, but I imagine it does,” Chappelle jokes. “And if I ever find out, I’ll let you know for sure — I’ll tell like Azealia Banks, I’ll tell.” (That’s a sly reference to Banks’ recent intimation that she and Chappelle had slept together.) The stinky pussy insult is juvenile and not particularly funny; but later in the set, Chappelle offers a more cogent assessment: “She’s the most articulate idiot I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. She’s so articulate she’ll tell you how fucking stupid she is, precisely.” He has no mercy for Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, either, who famously told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” calling her a cunt.
But the bulk of the special is fixated on the Black men who have lost their lives to police violence. (Tellingly, and disappointingly, there’s no mention of Black women victims of police violence like Breonna Taylor or trans people like Tony McDade.) Still, Chappelle is moving when he speaks plainly of the killings of John Crawford, Philando Castile, and Trayvon Martin, among others, with their faces flashing on the screen as he does so.
He delivers a somber timeline of Black death and wraps up the set in late, great Chappelle fashion, by calling back to an earlier thread about his father and grandmother and linking it to a story about his lineage as a descendant of enslaved people. It’s reminiscent of the work of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who wrote the definitive essay on Chappelle, back when he was in self-exile. Both Ghansah and Chappelle are so good at pulling unexpected threads of history and weaving them together to devastating effect.
Undoubtedly raw, 8:46 feels like the first meaningful mainstream art to emerge from this particular moment. It’s certainly one of the more useful things a celebrity has put out during this surreal time. Early on in the show, Chappelle says he thinks this special is the first concert in North America amid all the coronavirus-related cancellations. I’m sure that is not actually true, but the next line he utters certainly holds up for this show: “Like it or not, it’s history. It’s gonna be in the books.”●