“A guy your age wouldn’t even know the pain. It’s like in your generation the space shuttle [The Challenger] blows up every fucking day. How can you care about anything, when you care about every goddamn thing? […] I can’t keep track of all this shit, so you just, give the fuck up. That’s the hallmark of your generation.”
That’s Dave Chappelle, speaking about how our collective response to tragedy has changed since the eighties. It’s an excerpt from his 2017 special, “The Age of Spin,” an insight that has stuck with me for the past two and a half years, as the world has sunk deeper and deeper into the raging trash-fire it is today. I especially remember thinking through these words in the days after the tragic shootings in El Paso and Dayton, two horrific events that took place within less than 24 hours of each other. It feels true. How can we care about anything, when we’re constantly presented with disasters we could have prevented?
But you’re probably not thinking of Chappelle as a prophetic truth-teller. Instead, you’ve probably heard about his special that was released last Monday, “Sticks and Stones.” The thinkpieces and headlines are true: it’s packed to the brim with transphobic, anti-“PC” sentiments. I sat through all sixty-five minutes, as Chappelle rails against Michael Jackson’s accusers, “jokingly” appears to argue that trans people are holding back the LGBTQ movement and “explains” how we were wrong to ask Kevin Hart to apologize for homophobic tweets.
Chappelle is actively trying to get himself “cancelled,” or maybe he’s just exhausted. “I’ve got a MeToo headache” he says at one point. “I just can’t live in this new world,” he admits later. A part of me is inclined to give him what he wants, cut him off, never engage with anything he makes again. Last week, I wrote about how Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” was an appeal from an old man to be accepted by a changing culture. “Sticks and Stones” is the antithesis.
So what do we do with Dave Chappelle: old man? To be honest, I don’t know. I’m confused. I’m conflicted. “Stick and Stones” is nowhere near the best Chappelle special; I don’t find much of it very funny. But the fact is, I still like a lot of his prior material. His groundbreaking “Chappelle’s Show” changed sketch comedy forever, and, if you ask me, a lot of it still holds up today. The man has had a profound effect on how millions think about race in this country—myself included, and for the better, I’d add.
Then again, I find most of this new material genuinely disgusting. But it’s not far removed from what Chappelle has been saying for years: “The Age of Spin,” the same special in which the comedian supplied a lens that has made it easier for me to process the world, also features transphobic jokes. It’s bad.
It also feels worth pointing out that you can stream “Stick and Stones” on Netflix, the same company that distributed Aziz Ansari’s recent #MeToo blowback piece, “Right Now.” Netflix is also the same company behind “House of Cards” and faced criticism in terms of its handling of serial abuser Kevin Spacey and his behavior on set. I’m not implying that Netflix executives are paying people like Chappelle and Ansari to push back against broader progressive social forces, but Netflix certainly has a stake in this discourse.
At this point, I can hear myself stalling, trying to stop myself from supplying any problematic answers of my own to the questions I’ve raised. What good are our old men, our outdated artists? I wish there was some widely accepted cancel culture manual that I could consult, some sort of intersectional rulebook for situations like this. Should I be purging Chappelle’s prior insights from my brain? I’m not against cancel culture when it comes to people like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, but I’d argue that Chappelle’s situation is different.
I’ll close on this: last week, I watched one of my favorite movies of the last few years with my Mod-mates. It’s a film called “First Reformed,” a perfectly paced climate catastrophe drama about our incoming apocalypse. My friends and I sat through this tense, pressing motion picture, thoroughly engrossed—it was my third time watching the film, and I find it just as hypnotic and essential. This is a work that has had a deep and profound impact on me, shaping the way I see the world today (let’s just say I won’t be moving to any coastal cities anytime soon).
“First Reformed” was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who is a 73-year-old man (plus, I have it on good authority that he owes a former arts editor of this publication ten dollars). But Paul Schrader also posts regularly on Facebook, with a blatant disregard for “political correctness.” He’s used the word “Orientals” to describe Asian people. Every time I scroll through my feed, I feel a twinge of anxiety, a worry that I’ll stumble across a Schrader post that’ll force me to reconsider my absolute recommendation of “First Reformed.”
Has Chappelle crossed this same line? Probably. The truth is, I don’t know what to do with these old men, and the real estate their work has already got in my brain.