In a surprise move, Netflix quietly released a “speech” on Friday delivered by comedian Dave Chappelle at his high school alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. The speech is forty minutes in length and time well spent for Chappelle’s audience. The speech/special is titled “What’s in a Name?”
The reason for Chappelle’s speech that turned into a Netflix special was the re-naming of the school’s theatre. Chappelle was to be honored by the school. His name was supposed to be on the theatre but all that changed after a much-publicized meltdown by students at the high school over the choice of honoring Chappelle. Students decided that Chappelle’s Netflix special “The Closer” was intolerant of transgender people and treated Chappelle badly during a visit to the school. Chappelle heard their complaints but treated them more as adults than as kids and pushed back.
After much discussion, Chappelle decided he did not want the theatre to bear his name. Instead, he wanted to use the opportunity to re-name the theatre to promote a message. The theatre is now named the Theatre for Artistic Freedom & Expression. See what he did there? Chappelle explained his decision during this speech and turned it into a masterclass for teenage students.
Chappelle pledged $100,000 toward the theatre’s construction. When the school initially told him that the theatre would be named for him he called it “the most significant honor of my life.” Chappelle truly loves the school and gets choked up talking about how much it played a role in his life as a teen in D.C. He did so during the speech, too. He has raised incredible amounts of money for the school and regularly visits and brings other celebrity friends to hold masterclasses for the students. He sees himself in a mentor role.
He was genuinely hurt that the students turned on him during his visit in November 2021. During a Q and A, he asked them what exactly he did to set them off in “The Closer”. They let him have it but it was all in the language of social media. Their criticism of Chappelle sounded straight out of Twitter World. They used the words that show up on Twitter threads in rants about transgenderism and homophobia. It made Chappelle sad that the kids were being used, in his opinion, by others. It was about cancel culture and not about art.
“These kids said everything about gender and this, that, and the other, but they didn’t say anything about art,” he sighed, referring to the previous encounter at Duke Ellington. Citing a worry about the flattening of nuance, he referred to the backlash about his trans jokes as similar to “reading a newspaper and it said, ‘Man shot in the face by a six-foot rabbit, expected to survive,’ and you say ‘Oh my God!’ but they never tell you it’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
He also suggested that the teens surely did not come up with their anti-Chappelle opinions on their own, that “those talking points coming out of those children’s faces” which “really hurt” the comic, were parroted from elsewhere. (“I’ve heard those words before!” he said, with a bug-eyed grin.)
He then added that “these kids didn’t understand that they were instruments of oppression.”
The Vanity Fair piece goes on to mention that Chappelle spoke about the recent vandalism of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
He also compared the recent vandalism against the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum as similar to how people have attacked his special The Closer. (He also snuck in that the attacker was “wearing women’s clothing,” which is true, but he was dressed like an elderly woman in a wheelchair to avoid security; just how much of Chappelle’s phrasing was meant to be inflammatory or “just a joke” is certainly open to debate.)
I don’t think Chappelle mentioned the crazed vandal was cross-dressing to be inflammatory. That’s not the impression I got. There is no inclusion of “jokes” about trans people or any of that. This speech is literally Chappelle’s life story from the time he entered a public high school in D.C. which he hated, to his opportunity to get accepted at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and then he goes into his adult life and his successful career. He explains why it was important to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He makes some jokes now and then to lighten up the speech, mostly at his own expense. Make no mistake, though. Chappelle is a man who is confident in his talent and not afraid to tell some teenagers that if they want to beat him, go for it. But, they will have to do it through artistic expression, not cancel culture.
“It will be decades before you ever see someone in my genre as proficient as me. I am a maybe once-in-a-lifetime talent. I am telling you the truth.”
As I mentioned above, Chappelle’s 40-minute speech, which he filmed and turned into a special for Netflix, is an explanation of why the theatre will carry the name it has for now, not his name. He wants the kids to understand it is about art and freedom of expression. He uses his own life and personal experiences to teach them this important lesson. It’s well done and something that young people everywhere should hear.