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Dave Chappelle’s controversial comedy special is a catalyst for change as Netflix walkout leads to calls for reform

When it comes to the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer,” Netflix seems to have hit a nerve affecting both employees and boldfacers

Dave Chappelle's comedy special “The Closer” has raised several issues at Netflix. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News)
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Netflix employees at the streaming giant’s campuses around the world walked off the job Wednesday in protest of Dave Chappelle’s latest special, the company’s defense of the comedian and its dismissal of concerns that the content was dangerously transphobic.

A crowd of dozens gathered outside the streamer’s West Hollywood offices to denounce both Chappelle and the company’s chief executive, Ted Sarandos, who has stood by “The Closer” after employees, LGBTQ organizations and the platform’s own talent likened the special to hate speech. Some supporters of Chappelle also attended the rally, clashing with protesters as they urged Netflix not to limit speech and held up signs with messages such as “Jokes are funny.”

“We’re here today not because we can’t take a joke," Ashlee Marie Preston, a media personality and the walkout’s organizer, told rallygoers. “We’re here today because the jokes are taking lives.”

A crowd of dozens gathered outside Netflix headquarters on Oct. 20 in protest of Dave Chappelle's comedy special “The Closer,” which they said was transphobic. (Video: Reuters)

The one-day walkout followed weeks of simmering complaints and punctuates the collision of the comedian’s popularity with the growing movement to protect the rights of transgender people.

The issue exploded after the Oct. 5 release of the comedian’s special, in which he compares being trans to wearing blackface, makes jokes about transgender people’s genitalia and declares he’s “team TERF” — which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist — because he believes “gender is a fact.” He compares the struggles of the Black community directly with the LGBTQ community. “I can’t help but feel like if slaves had baby oil and booty shorts,” he tells the audience, "we might have been free a hundred years sooner.”

In their list of demands to Sarandos, the Netflix employee resource group Trans*, which consists of trans and nonbinary employees and their allies, wrote in a news release that they want the company to add disclaimers to transphobic content, make investments in trans creators and recruit trans people to work in Netflix leadership roles. The group did not demand that “The Closer” be removed from the platform.

Considered one of comedy’s greats, Chappelle influenced a generation of entertainers with his racially charged and critically acclaimed sketch series “Chappelle’s Show” and his subsequent dramatic exit from the show in 2005. After years spent out of the spotlight, he returned to the stage in 2013, and in 2016 inked a $60 million Netflix deal for a trio of specials that considered no topic too taboo. In the years since, Chappelle has received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, hosted the highest-rated “Saturday Night Live” telecast in years, won multiple Emmy and Grammy awards, and in what he called “the most significant honor of my life,” his alma mater is planning to name its theater after him.

The dedication ceremony at Duke Ellington School of the Arts is set to take place next month in Washington, but some students there are not happy with the decision. “To walk past there and see the name of someone who does not respect my sexuality or me as a person frankly disgusts me,” said 16-year-old student Andrew Wilson, who identifies as gay.

From its very first punchlines, Chappelle’s sixth and perhaps final special for the company establishes itself as napalm. The 48-year-old jokingly refers to himself as “transphobic comedian Dave Chappelle” in an attempt to reanimate the topic of cancel culture and political correctness he explored in his 2019 special “Sticks and Stones.”

Dave Chappelle draws criticism for doubling down on jokes about the LGBTQ community

Responding to the criticism from LGBTQ groups, Sarandos defended the program in two memos, saying he supported Chappelle’s “artistic freedom.” Though he acknowledged in an interview with Variety on Tuesday that he “screwed up that internal communication” and “should have led with a lot more humanity,” he reiterated that the special would not be taken down and said he defined hate speech on the platform as “something that would intentionally call for physically harming other people or even remove protections. For me, intent to cause physical harm crosses the line, for sure.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, zeroed in on that distinction. “Harm is not always physical," Hunter said. "It’s psychological, it’s emotional. It happens in many different forms, and words hurt. Words incite violence.”

"This isn’t about Dave Chappelle and what he says,” said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “It has always been about Netflix platforming transphobia for profit, and creating and holding space for intersectionality to be used as a way to acknowledge how easily and often Black trans, queer and nonbinary people are erased ... in ways that might condone or contribute to violence.”

LGBTQ advocacy organizations expressed their support for Wednesday’s walkout and, as GLAAD wrote in a statement, urged Netflix to “take swift and strong action to address the calls for change from the community and their own employees.”

A spokesperson for Netflix released a statement ahead of the planned rally that said the company respected employees’ decision to walk out “and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement that "privilege can cloud what we do or don't see as harmful. Media companies and content producers have big decisions to make about what is respectful and what deserves a platform."

But Chappelle has still found support from some fellow comedians. Damon Wayans told TMZ that comedians were “slaves to PC culture" and that Chappelle “freed” them. And Chappelle himself received a standing ovation at the Hollywood Bowl a few days after the special premiered, telling the crowd, “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.”

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The streaming company now finds itself on the edge of a metamorphic moment. Since its transformation from DVD mailer to entertainment industry heavyweight nearly a decade ago, the company has managed to weather the tide of controversy that comes with being a big fish in the rising ocean of online streaming.

But with a marathon list of original programming that in 2019 was equivalent to debuting one new title a day, issues have emerged.

There has been accusations of censorship over deleted episodes of shows, such as when Netflix blocked Saudi audiences from viewing an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act” after the comedian connected the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi Arabian crown prince in his monologue).

There have been outcries from mental health advocacy groups about the depiction of suicide, such as an intensely graphic scene in the wildly popular teen drama “13 Reasons Why” that the company edited out more than two years after it first aired.

There was a reworking of a promotional poster over concerns of sexualizing prepubescent girls. After Netflix changed the artwork for “Cuties” following intense backlash, it tweeted an apology that read in part, “It was not OK.”

The company has demonstrated that it can change course when necessary. But when it comes to the Chapelle controversy, Netflix has hit a nerve.

Instead of just outside pressure mounting the charge, calls for action are coming from both employees and stars who made their names on the platform.

Terra Field, a Netflix software engineer who is also transgender, took the company to task on Twitter for attempting to be “neutral.” “This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be,” she wrote. She then attended a meeting meant for senior executives along with two other co-workers. All three were suspended and then reinstated days later. But the fate of another colleague was more permanent: Netflix confirmed that it had fired an employee it said had leaked company data, including that the streamer paid $24.1 million for “The Closer,” that appeared in a Bloomberg News article.

Netflix fires employee for sharing information about Dave Chappelle’s special amid LGBTQ backlash

While the corporate drama was playing out, the talent was equally as enraged.

Jaclyn Moore, the showrunner of the Netflix series “Dear White People” who is also trans, said she was “done” with the company.

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose 2018 Netflix special “Nanette” was heralded as groundbreaking for her takes on trauma, sexuality and mental health, took particular exception with Sarandos, who in a memo cited Gadsby’s work as an example of the streamer’s diverse slate of programming.

“Hey Ted Sarandos! Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” Gadsby responded via Instagram. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.”

In the final moments of “The Closer,” Chappelle seems to qualify his remarks, telling the audience that he has “never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying clearly, my problem has always been with White people.” Now that the transgender community has the country listening, it appears that their argument has something in common with the comedian’s own framing. The main problem isn’t with Chappelle, they insist. It’s with Netflix.

Jacob Bogage, Sonia Rao and Vanessa G. Sanchez contributed to this report.

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