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In Dave Chappelle’s surprise new special, he drops the comedy to meditate on black America

In “8:46,” named for the length of time of George Floyd’s killing, Chappelle turns his stage into a somber pulpit.

Dave Chappelle takes to the stage for a sobering invective against police brutality.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Dave Chappelle released a sober reflection on racist police brutality in America Thursday night via Netflix’s comedy hub on YouTube. The half-hour performance marked one of Chappelle’s first filmed public appearances since winning a Grammy for the album of his controversial 2019 Netflix special Sticks and Stones.

Despite spending a good deal of that special questioning progressive political rhetoric’s role in public discourse, Chappelle takes a page from other heavy comedy specials, like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, dropping humor altogether in favor of grappling with the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing national upheaval it caused.

The performance, which took place over the weekend near Chappelle’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, is titled simply “8:46” — the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck. Insisting he doesn’t need to speak, that no celebrity needs to be heard over the sound of “the streets talking for themselves,” Chappelle speaks anyway, to make clear that his “silence is [not] complicit.”

Drawing a comparison to the terror he felt during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Chappelle points out that despite his fear and panic and the conviction that he was going to die, the earthquake only lasted less than 30 seconds in total.

“This man kneeled on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds,” Chappelle tells his audience. “Can you imagine that?”

Interspersed with anecdotes from history, Chappelle recalls the murders of black men like Eric Garner and Philando Castile at the hands of police. He argues that black men who retaliate against this type of oppression with violence of their own are often military-trained men who “believed they were fighting [against] acts of terror.” In a memorable dramatic callback, he reminds us just how recent slavery actually was, and how close its trauma still is for many black Americans.

Throughout the performance, Chappelle allows his restless body language to convey his unease and disquietude, shifting alternately from sprawling on a stool to crouching, standing, or kneeling. He also peppers his monologue with unapologetically misogynistic language, directed toward conservatives like Candace Owens and other women who’ve criticized the morals of black men who became victims of police violence.

Chappelle has never been diffident about courting criticism for his reactionary brand of comedy or his insensitive treatment of other marginalized communities. But “8:46” is a reminder that his unapologetic willingness to offend can also be a powerful invective when he punches up instead of down.

“Normally I wouldn’t show you something so unrefined,” he states through Netflix to his audience. “I hope you understand.”

But even unrefined and exhausted — or perhaps because it is both of those things — Chappelle’s perspective on being black in America is still searing, powerful, and worth hearing.