Of all the people you might expect to make a documentary about race, Chelsea Handler is probably not one of them. But the comedian did just that in an episode of her four-part docuseries “Chelsea Does,” now streaming on Netflix.
Handler has been criticized for a number of race-related jokes. There was the time she had her “Chelsea Lately” sidekick Chuy — a little person whose role on the show was seen by some as exploitative — dress as Hitler. For what it’s worth, Handler is Jewish, as she reminds you many times in “Chelsea Does … Racism,” which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, along with her accompanying documentaries on marriage, drugs and technology.
Handler has sent some misguided missives about dating black men. She also came under fire for a series of tweets she posted to the Huffington Post’s Twitter account during the 2014 Academy Awards. “Angelina Jolie just filed adoption papers,” she tweeted after Lupita Nyong’o won the best supporting actress Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.”
The criticism isn’t lost on Handler, who addresses it head-on — with mixed results. Though she’s grappling with the role of race in her comedy, she mostly remains unrepentant. She tells a therapist that “sometimes I probably joke too much and people are offended,” right after she tells a roundtable of advocacy group representatives that “I make it a rule never to apologize for anything I’ve said publicly.”
The willingness to offend everyone has been Handler’s go-to when defending her humor. “I come from the school of making fun of as many people as possible all the time, no political correctness, and I think that’s helpful,” Handler explains over drinks with friends, including fellow comedians Aasif Mandvi and Margaret Cho. “Political correctness is, like, the handicap of any real conversation and I hate it.”
The episode begins with this exchange, leading into the opening credits, which feature images of Wonder Bread, crackers, Manischewitz wine, tortillas, Oreos and watermelon being sliced. Handler’s clearly not going for subtlety. (The opening sequences for the other episodes are just as heavy-handed.)
Handler eventually talks to everyone from her father (“I grew up with a father who was really racist but towards everyone,” she says) to Al Sharpton to former Israeli president Shimon Peres to representatives from organizations such as the NAACP, National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
With Sharpton, Handler dives right in: “I’m a comedian. What am I allowed to say, what am I not allowed to say?”
“I think you have to be able to laugh at yourself without making your culture the joke,” Sharpton says. “There’s a fine line there and I think that people ought to be sensitive to where that line is.”
Handler gets into hot water when she drives through neighborhoods in Los Angeles with her friend, Loni Love (who will be familiar to fans of “Chelsea Lately”). “I had no idea that they have these little sub-communities everywhere,” Handler says. “I feel like I actually have self-segregated.”
There’s plenty to offend here. After a discussion about the L.A. riots with a shop owner in Koreatown, Handler pretends to steal merchandise and jokes that the owner should “just pretend you’re being looted again, but by white people.” When her conversation with Mandvi and Cho turns to Islamophobia, Handler says that “if Muslims are primarily the people that are blowing up planes, then I would like them to be searching Muslims before I get on a plane.”
Handler stood by her comments in a recent interview with Refinery29. “It is an honest conversation,” Handler told the site. “It’s what you would talk about with your friends when you’re not being filmed. To me, that element is really integral to documentaries. Yeah, I have these feelings. They’re not necessarily right or wrong, but I have them, so I want to talk about them and say them out loud.”
The documentary does have some effective moments, and most of them happen when Handler leaves Los Angeles.
In Tallassee, Ala., Handler attends a Sons of Confederate Veterans reunion, where she has a jaw-dropping conversation with members about slavery. “People were taken care of,” says one man. When Handler asks what Hollywood has gotten wrong about slavery, another member volunteers “the beating of people.” “There may have been one [slave owner] that would do that to their slave just because they’re a mean, bad person, but the majority of ’em would not do that,” she tells Handler, who remains expressionless behind dark sunglasses.
In South Carolina, Handler sits down with the family of Walter Scott, who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer after running away from a traffic stop. She also visits an Indian reservation in San Diego County and has a frank discussion with a patrol volunteer at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Despite these eye-opening moments, it’s disappointing that Handler, who has said that she views “Chelsea Does” as a prelude to her Netflix talk show, expected later this year, doesn’t take the opportunity to explore the obvious issues of race in the topics of her other episodes. There’s no talk about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley during the episode dedicated to technology, for example, though she offers up typical racially tinged jokes. An episode called “Chelsea Does … Drugs” says nothing about disparities in how blacks and whites are prosecuted for drug-related offenses.
Ultimately, Handler’s documentary functions more as a way to justify her brand of humor than to offer a fresh take on how we talk about race. But maybe that’s sort of the point.
“Do you think we’ve learned anything today?” she asks her friend Love in the closing scene.
“I think everybody has the same stereotypes about everybody. It just never changes,” Love tells Handler, who breaks into a hearty laugh.