America Taught Dave Chappelle That Millionaires Can Sharecrop Too

The comedic giant’s streaming beef echoes the disenfranchised and challenges the privileged. Where do you stand?

Photo courtesy of Netflix

What separates Dave Chappelle apart from his peers travels further than him being today’s #1 comedian. Yes, he writes and performs stand up better than 98% of the human race. And yes his POV beams so brilliant that at times society gets introduced to undiscovered angles of itself. But the creator of the Chappelle’s Show no longer needs jokes to captivate an audience.

Today, Dave Chappelle stands as one of our generation’s greatest storytellers. Like a 1973 Bordeaux, his skill for crocheting hilarious details into luminously poignant tales has aged exquisitely whilst refining consumers. He has the command to make us hold our breath for eight minutes and forty six seconds as he reps for George Floyd. He can stalk a stage being as entertained by his own material as us or sit hunched on a stool for 60 minutes. Regardless of his posture, our attention remains erect.

Earlier this week, he uploaded to his website, Unforgiven, an 18-minute soliloquy that exposed the poor ethics behind his Chappelle’s Show contract. It concluded with the savant declaring war on Comedy Central and its parent company, Viacom. There were funny bits, but few jokes. He offered a couple of stories from different periods in his life. Each demanded its own space and identity yet remained loyal to the theme: violation. He took us full circle, beginning with his first year as a teen comic who was bullied out of a joke by an adult comic. He moved some years forward, when a three card monte con artist cautioned him to “never come between a man and his meal.” These two flashbacks were set up for his gripe with Comedy Central. The network, along with HBO Max, has been streaming Chappelle’s Show ever since Dave hosted SNL the night Biden was projected to secure election. According to Dave (and his agent), he has no voice in the matter. He also won’t receive a penny of the new streaming revenue.

Dave reflected on a corporate room full of Comedy Central suits encouraging a broke comedian whose wife was with-child to sign a “terrible deal.” He spoke on foreign contract vocabulary like “likeness of image” and “perpetuity” as dressed up slave holdings, and punctuated his point with the fact that although his deal with the network was predatory in nature and essentially a lifetime sentence, it was standard and legal. Then Dave held up that mirror and paralleled his multimedia enemy with that of the Me Too movement. Not to be taken literally, he was referencing a mentality that allows those with a certain power and privilege — not to exclude economic status — to disrupt, violate and possibly ruin the life of someone with less. Whether the gap is money, notoriety, physical strength or civil rights, in the United States especially, the lesser someone has the greater chance that they become prey.

Although the culture of corporate America is unequivocally insidious, it has always been a microcosm of its country’s spirit.

What Chappelle conveyed is that rapists and pedophiles, judges with financial ties to prisons, real estate red liners, and gray wolves share the same DNA as the corporate executives. But as the idiom goes: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Although the culture of corporate America is unequivocally insidious, it has always been a microcosm of its country’s spirit. Widen the lens on Unforgiven and be reintroduced to an encouraged predatory mindset that is baked into the psyche of the oppressor and oppressed. It’s the system that not only breeds the former (Donald Trump), but disrupts and aims to ruin the latter whenever they cry foul (Anita Hill). For every Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff there’s a Hollywood and shaded world of finance that they called a playpen. Their coarse behavior was par for the American course.

Comedy Central and CBS’ dealings were simply reverberations of the practices of the first English settlers to step foot in North America. Poor ethics and incorrigible deceit led to the decimation of Native Americans. A handshake and smile is followed by a knife in the back and Englishman in your Cherokee bride. The devil’s pie got richer with the stealing and torturing of Black people in order for them to work land stolen from Brown people. That is until whole humans were freed and immediately forced into more bondage with sharecropping. Dave Chappelle is a sharecropper and the Chappelle’s Show is on White man’s land.

While Unforgiven took clear aim at Comedy Central as well as the shareholders for its parent company, you were supposed to see yourself in the mirror. Where do you fit in this too common jungle where predators bait and feast off the young and desperate, then discard their existence like fried wing tips on a Monday night? The impromptu special’s bright spot was Dave informing that when he called Netflix to express his dismay with them streaming the Chappelle’s Show the network immediately removed the program from its platform. The powers that be certainly did not have to. The network was operating under standard business and very legal practices. The beauty is that Netflix possessed all the power that the system afforded and were contractually entitled to serve their brand best, yet chose to forgo the corporate move for the humane act. If you still aren’t clear on what White allyship and anti racism looks like in practice, that is it: having been afforded the privilege to commit terrible or simply selfish acts and opting not to.

So who are you: Netflix or Comedy Central? Are you capable of accepting less so that someone with lesser has more? Will you choose fairness although your legal team is more expensive than the talent’s? Can the defendant still receive proper justice with a public defender? I’m asking judges and human resource heads and property owners and police officers. All those with the sovereignty to do bad to anyone they don’t know personally. Just as systemic inequality and oppression is preserved by the benefactors, it can be brought down by the same owners of privilege. Those on the inside who feel that no individual or culture should come in between any man or woman’s meal.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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