Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 18 through 24 is The Daily Show’s “June 21, 2017.”
Trevor Noah seemed almost lost for words as he worked through his feelings this week on the Philando Castile verdict. The Daily Show host, who has to crack jokes about awful news four days a week, found himself equally horrified and heartbroken in the face of this particular incident — but somehow he ended up delivering, through his stark grief, some of the most profound moments of his tenure on the Daily Show.
On June 19, he took more time than usual during his “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” news roundup segment to acknowledge his flabbergasted disappointment that police officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared of manslaughter in the death of Castile. “Every time I watch that video, the question I ask myself is, ‘How?’ Just … how?” Noah said as his audience fell silent. “How does a black person not get shot in America? Because if you think about it, the bar is always moving. The goalposts are always shifting. There’s always a different thing that explains why a person got shot. … At some point, you realize there’s no real answer.”
On June 20, he paused between taping segments to talk frankly with his studio audience about how many times he’s been stopped by the police in the few years he’s lived in the United States, grimly joking that this fact always “blows white people’s minds.”
But it was on June 21 that Noah allowed himself to feel and express real despair — and not just about how the Castile case has unfolded, but about the state of American racism and the insidious role it plays in the justice system. The resulting monologue wasn’t typical of The Daily Show’s usual sputtering outrage, but it was undeniably powerful.
Noah’s slow and steady dissection of the dash-cam footage was a masterful way to guide his audience to his point
“Honestly, I thought that I felt all I could feel about this story, until I got home and I watched a newly released video,” Noah said, referring to the dash-cam footage released earlier this week, which had been submitted to the jury that eventually acquitted the cop in question. “I won’t lie to you … it broke me,” he continued. “It just — it broke me.”
After talking about the case all week, this was the moment in which Noah let the weight of the entire case fall on his own shoulders, and made it his mission to impart to his audience why, exactly, it was hitting him so hard.
Part of the irony of this verdict, Noah explained, is that it comes after years of people saying that the solution to unwarranted police shootings is to require police to wear body cameras, to eliminate any doubt about what had happened. “Black people have already taken that initiative, all right?” Noah said. “Thanks to cellphones, every black person has a body cam now.” But for Castile, neither a dash cam nor a cellphone mattered in the end.
Even worse, Noah went on, is that the jury of Castile’s fellow citizens did see this footage, and concluded that Officer Yanez had reason to claim self-defense. “Forget race,” Noah said, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Are we all watching the same video? The video where a law-abiding man followed an officer’s instructions to the letter of the law and was killed regardless? People watched that video, and then voted to acquit?”
And even though Noah himself began the segment by marveling that he had anything left to say about this situation, he managed to find a new level of disappointment within himself when faced with Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook Live footage of the shooting’s aftermath, noting that Castile’s loved ones still had to have the presence of mind to be “deferential” to the cop who had just shot him, even continuing to call him “sir.”
“In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly, black people never forget their training,” Noah said, his voice dry but simmering with anger.
And on one point, Noah was crystal clear: However awful the video is, it’s just as awful that a jury of Castile’s peers watched it and voted to acquit the officer involved, even after seeing him comply with every demand and consciously work to put Yanez at ease:
The jury [in Yanez’s trial] had to make a decision, and that decision is, “Do you think this policeman was justified in thinking that his life was in danger?” And their opinion, having watched that video, having listened to that exchange, they still said, “Yes, yes, I can see why that cop was afraid.”
But why? ... Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?
Having made his case, Noah then cut to commercial, his studio quiet as a whisper.
Noah has honed his Daily Show comedy, but dropping the jokes for Castile was the best choice he could’ve made
On paper, this might look in line with the kind of disbelieving “can you believe this shit?” vibe The Daily Show has weaponized since Jon Stewart took his place behind the desk. But in Noah’s hands, this monologue was less emphatically outraged than somber, steady in its conviction that he was explaining not just the news, but a clear and absolute injustice.
In an episode that otherwise featured a straightforward interview with musician Jason Isbell and a truly trippy interlude featuring cartoon cheetahs and DJ Khaled, this monologue stood out as unusually bruising. Noah has certainly gotten serious with his audience before — as he did after Donald Trump won the presidency in November — but this monologue is still a standout.
Not only was it the culmination of three nights of Noah delving into this case, but it was an exhausted, wrenching dissection of why the grief over Castile and black victims like him won’t subside anytime soon. Noah, steadfast but openly heartbroken, was determined to use his platform to make his audience stare this injustice in the face — and in doing so, he found a singularly clear, vital voice.
Full episodes of The Daily Show — including “June 21, 2017” — are currently available to watch on Comedy Central’s website.