Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones

Dave Chappelle, Sticks & Stones (2019) poster.jpg

Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones is a 2019 American stand-up comedy film written and performed by comedian Dave Chappelle, and directed by Stan Lathan.[1] Produced by both Chappelle and Lathan, and distributed by Netflix.[2][3] The special is detailed as "a provocative perspective on the tidal wave of celebrity scandals, the opioid crisis, and more",[4][5] and is Chappelle's fifth Netflix special, following the 2017 specials The Age of Spin & Deep in the Heart of Texas and Equanimity & The Bird Revelation.[6] Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones features Chappelle speaking of topics such as cancel culture, gun ownership, the opioid epidemic in the United States, and the LGBT community.[7][8] Principal photography began at the Tabernacle in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia from June 13 to June 16, 2019.[9][10]

Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones was released through Netflix on August 26, 2019.[11] It garnered controversy, receiving mixed reviews from critics, although it received acclaim from audiences. The special received backlash because of jokes about abuse allegations against singers Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, as well as jokes about the LGBT community, among other subjects.[12]

Synopsis

The primary subject of Sticks & Stones is cancel culture and Chappelle's frustrations with a perceived modern preoccupation with ending the careers of individuals after a controversy.[13][14] In the introduction, Chappelle issues a warning in the form of the lyrics to Prince's "1999", wherein he places extra emphasis on the last line of the verse: "Tryin' to run from the destruction, you know I didn't even care!"[15][16] This sets up the rest of the performance, in which he speaks of a series of high-profile news stories about celebrities.[15] He contrasts Anthony Bourdain with old friend of his who, despite living under difficult circumstances, never conceived of ending his life—an overarching point being that suicide is fundamentally irrational; not being tied directly to material conditions.[17]

Following this, Chappelle makes mention of the Founding Fathers, specifically referencing their role in slavery whilst drafting the Constitution of the United States.[18] After this he shifts into speaking of the segment of society which bans, blacklists and boycotts entertainers over politically incorrect jokes which deter those—including Chappelle himself—from doing comedy.[19] He then reiterated his stance for those who have yet to watch the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland (2019),[20] which detailed Michael Jackson's alleged child abuse, not to watch it while stating he doesn't believe the accusers due to Macaulay Culkin's stance in saying he was not molested by Jackson or witnessed the singer assaulting anyone.[21] Chappelle also discussed the sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly, whom he described as being "different" from Jackson because Chappelle is "pretty sure he did that",[22] to which he uses to springboard the point that many individuals are molested and it's preferable if the person that does it is famous.[23]

Chappelle also took a moment to speak of Kevin Hart, explaining that he was aware it was Hart's "dream to host the Oscars."[24] He then uses the Hart introduction to discuss an "unwritten and unspoken rule of show business," which is that "you are never, ever allowed to upset the [LGBT community]."[25][26] He expresses his dismay when talking about a conversation he had with a member of Standards and Practices about the Chappelle's Show, and its use of the gay-slur: "faggot".[27] In the discussion with the woman at S&P, he asked why he couldn't say the word "faggot" but can use word "nigger", with apparent impunity. The woman tells him it's because he's not gay, to which Chappelle retorts: "Well, Renée [...] I'm not a nigger either."[28][27]

The comedian tackles transgenderism and transracialism in which he uses a car ride analogy with persons LGBTQ.[29] In the beginning, he implies that every rider (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) in the car is white, while noting the car is driven by a white gay male, who says he knows the way through discrimination because he paved the roads; to which Chappelle calls out the historic racism that some members of the LGBTQ community routinely display toward other races, and especially the queer black people—as a double minority—they should seem to have some kinship with.[30] Adjoined to this idea, he also implies that they believe their queerness is more significant than the black struggle in America, wherein Chappelle points out that each group is actually a separate movement banded together under the umbrella acronym.[30] He shifts focus by mentioning controversies surrounding comedian Louis C.K., as well as critiquing the #MeToo movement as being too draconian to be effective at reducing real issues faced by women in the industry.

Chappelle exposes the antithesis between the pro and anti-abortion positions; exposing the stark contrast between them, with him laying out his position on abortion:[31] "The right to choose [abortion] is [women's] unequivocal right [...]", whilst also stating: "I also believe that if you decide to have the baby, a man should not have to pay. That's fair. If you can kill this [baby], I can at least abandon him. It's my money my choice."[32][27] He also reminds the Atlanta audience that they live in one of several states that have enacted harsher anti-abortion laws since #MeToo.[33] Chappelle also advocated that black people legally buy guns as a sort of protest troll—if for nothing else—to have white legislators alter the Second Amendment out of fear. In reference to gun control, he compares today's opioid crisis to the devastation crack wrought in the '80s, with one important distinction: This epidemic gets much more attention because these addicts are white—concluding the segment in advocating for decriminalisation, while highlighting addiction as an illness.[34][30] Chappelle also lampoons the alleged assault against actor Jussie Smollett,[33][35] while returning to the cancel culture with how journalist Jeff Taylor of NewNoxNext took comments Chappelle made about the case at the time.[36] Stories from his upbringing form the closing segment to the show, as he recalls his father's words of wisdom, financial difficulties, and economic discrimination which informed him as a child, whilst correlating this with school shootings.[30][37]

Epilogue

The Netflix release was followed by a secret 23-minute epilogue titled The Punchline,[N 1] wherein Chappelle invited the audience to ask him questions during his Dave Chappelle on Broadway performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City.[40][41][42] During the epilogue he told a story of a previous performance at the Punch Line San Francisco where a woman had walked out of his show during his jokes about the #MeToo movement saying "I'm sorry, I was raped", to which Chappelle retorted that "Miss [...] it is not your fault [...] that you were raped. But it's not mine either."[43] Chappelle mentioned that during the same performance a transgender woman named Daphne Dorman, who attended several of his sets, was laughing the hardest at his transgender jokes and Chappelle joked that the reason she could take his jokes—and that the first woman couldn't—is that "Daphne used to be a man."[44] Afterwards, according to Chappelle, they chatted at the bar and Daphne thanked him for "[normalising] transgenders by telling jokes about us."[43] He recalls a story of Charlie Murphy, covers the 2020 election, the #MeToo movement, anecdotes of Barack Obama and Gavin Newsom, and the most influential comedians in his life.[45][43]

Production

The Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia hosted Sticks & Stones' setting.

On November 21, 2016, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Chappelle and director Stan Lathan will produce an original stand-up comedy special exclusively for Netflix, and two never-before-seen specials hailed directly from Chappelle's personal comedy vault;[46] with the releases being Chappelle's first concert specials in 12 years.[47] The two additional specials were directed by Lathan, with Deep in the Heart of Texas filmed at Austin City Limits in April 2015, and The Age of Spin at the Hollywood Palladium in March 2016.[48] Concurrently with the announcement, Lisa Nishimura, Netflix's Vice President of Original Documentary and Comedy, spoke most highly of the deal, in which she stated, "[Chappelle]'s three new specials promise to be some of the most anticipated events in comedy, and we are honored he will mark his global return on Netflix."[49][50]

On November 17, 2017, Variety reported that Chappelle's third Netflix stand-up special entitled Equanimity—the first special Chappelle has produced exclusively for Netflix—will be released on Netflix on December 31, 2017.[51] However, on December 22, it was announced by Variety that in addition to the previously announced special Equanimity, the comedian will also release the special The Bird Revelation; marking Chappelle's third and fourth Netflix specials to be released this year.[52] Equanimity was filmed in September at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C., while The Bird Revelation was filmed November 20 at the The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.[53]

Film director Stan Lathan spoke of having two weeks to set up the shoot for The Bird Revelation," with the directing adding that it was their intent "to be as intimate and inside the experience as possible", while making references to The Age of Spin where Chappelle and he emptied the space to create a mini-stadium, complete with a thrust that takes Chappelle, who tends to walk the stage for blocks, anyway, out into the house.[54] Lathan also mentions networks mentality when it comes to the audience in that "[they] believe audiences should be heard and not seen [...] That goes against what I personally feel is part of the TV experience. He's performing for these people, not for these cameras." For Equanimity,[54] Lathan photographed using 10 Sony 4300 cameras, in which he states: "three jibs, two handhelds, four peds and a Steadicam, which gave us a 360-degree look at the theatre. Instead of relying on typical audience cutaways, we included Dave in those shots whenever possible."[54] In Spring 2018, Lathan was finishing work on one of Chappelle's specials, wherein he spoke of the editing process and bringing the comedian into the editing room, with Lathan stating that he knows to leave wiggle room so they can cut among shows, ultimately shaping the performance.[54] Lathan spoke of cut shifting ever so slightly based on the spontaneously of Chappelle, with the direct stating, "There's some nights [...] where the direction will shift a little bit based on a specific kind of response from an audience [...]", whilst concluding that world events in that even day may influence the final cut.[54] The audio post-production company Levels Audio, which worked on Equanimity & the Bird Revelation,[55] was brought back for Sticks & Stones, with audio engineers Brian Riordan and Connor Moore being tasked with re-recording mixing.[56][57]

Marketing and release

On August 15, 2019, Netflix announced Chappelle's fifth comedy special in an announcement teaser on YouTube narrated by Morgan Freeman.[58][59] Rick Porter of The Hollywood Reporter stated that while the doesn't reveal any of Chappelle's material, the special's title — and the voiceover narration from Freeman — may suggest that the comedian may be addressing criticism he faced after making jokes about transgender people and the #MeToo movement in Equanimity and The Bird Revelation (2017).[60] Editors at Maxim spoke of not getting any snippets of the actual stand-up special itself, although describing it as "a must-watch [...]."[61] Israel Daramola of Spin wrote: "Without revealing anything, it's pretty clear that Dave isn't skirting away from any of the controversies he's seen from his latest stand-up specials."[62] The special was released through Netflix on August 26, 2019.[63] In conjunction with Netflix's policies, the viewing figures for the special have not been released to the public.[64]

Reception

Critical reception

Sticks & Stones received mixed reviews.[65][66][67] The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 35% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 17 reviews, with an average rating of 5.69/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Edgy, but empty, Sticks and Stones might not break any bones, but it won't elicit many laughs, either."[68] It has drawn criticism from both the left and right sides of the aisle, primarily for Chappelle making light of paedophilia and Michael Jackson's alleged victims,[69][70][71] however, others have appreciated the special for its wide-ranging social commentary and Chappelle's unwillingness to censor himself to appease others.[72]

Vanity Fair's Laura Bradley, in a negative review, criticized the "stale work from a comedian who was once known for truly boundary-pushing comedy", adding that "These jokes [...] fall right in line with an increasingly defiant streak among comedians who rail against P.C. culture, and insist that the public has lost its ability to understand jokes in context."[73] A more critical review came from Kyle Smith of the National Review, who wrote: "The set mostly misses the mark. And what is that mark? The truth. Chappelle remains one of the most vital, and certainly among the most daring, of standups [...] His latest hour is a setback."[71] Writing for The Ringer, Alison Herman also returned with a negative review: "Sticks and Stones is designed to generate inflammatory coverage... It's a symbiotic cycle with no end in sight, and it's become the last thing a beloved provocateur should ever want to be: predictable."[74] Garrett Martin of Paste wrote that the special "is terrible not because audiences have changed, but because Chappelle himself is so thoroughly out of touch with today."[75] Dani Di Placido of Forbes called it "a special which feels like Chappelle's 'old man rant,' revelling in his perceived political incorrectness."[76] Madeline Fry of The Washington Examiner spoke of the certain failings of Sticks & Stones, albeit praising Chappelle at picking upon subtle hypocrisies in our society, to which Fry explains: "[Chappelle] does a good job of pairing arguments from the pro-abortion side with some of their logical shortcomings."[69]

The special, however, was not without its praise. Gerard Baker of The Wall Street Journal spoke highly of the piece, stating that "Today's performers mostly fall over each other to demonstrate new establishment bona fides. They may call themselves woke. They're barely breathing." He continued by praising the performance: "[Chappelle] is, in that sense, a true comic—one of extraordinary talent and sophistication."[77] D. Watkins of Salon, in a positive review, felt that "dismissing Chappelle's work as simply or obstinately regressive is not unlike seeing the world through the same lens as that [Comedy Central] network executive."[78] The forthrightness of Chappelle was appreciated by reviewers such as Jeremy Jahns who commented specifically that "I couldn't help but appreciate the fact that, well, this guy will do it; he'll go there."[79] Jordan Ruimy of World of Reel opined that "It's an act of sheer chutzpah from Chappelle, but it works as the jokes aren’t only funny but come with a biting sting", while stating Chappelle's piece feels "immediate, a plea from one of our very best comedians to his own audience to stop the hysteria."[80]

Ellie Bufkin wrote, in her review for The Federalist, "Sticks & Stones simply further proof that Chappelle didn't make a comeback to placate anyone. He came back to make people laugh, and, once again, he has succeeded."[29] Kahron Spearman of The Daily Dot gave the special a positive rating, stating: "Never before has a comic combatively discussed the nuances of race in such a challenging way [...] Watching Chappelle in the present is like observing an all-timer fighter in his prime."[30] Steve Krakauer NBCNews.com acclaimed Chappelle as "[...] a genius who leaves you just uncomfortable enough, laughing while you squirm. The problem now with Dave Chappelle is he's a birdshot sniper in a buckshot society."[81] Alexander Cameron of The Spectator lambasted Chappelle's critics by stating: "The idea that a comedian can only make jokes about certain groups is not a criticism, but a personal belief. It's a projection of relative morality, where those who are perceived as vulnerable must be protected at all costs from any ridicule, even the joking kind."[82] Joshua B. Porter of The Good Men Project, rated the film 4 out of 5 stars, stating that, "Sticks and Stones might be Chappelle's tightest set, tempo wise. He jumps right in and moves along at a brisk and controlled pace. There isn't much fat and he ties up material quickly and effectively when he's ready to move along to other material."[83] Sean L. McCarthy of The New York Times wrote: "[...] Chappelle also has seen the opioid crisis, and he brings both guns and drugs back to race relations in America, where he not only offers funny solutions, but also finally finds one joke target for whom nobody would feel sorry."[84] McCarthy concludes by stating that "[Chappelle] only makes jokes about people and things with which he identifies. It's a sincere moment, leading to a sincere story from his childhood."[84]

Audience response

Sticks & Stones received near-universal acclaim by audience-generated scores at Rotten Tomatoes, in which 99% of users rated the film 3.5 stars or higher with an average rating of 4.91/5 based on 36,659 users,[85] while at IMDb, the average user score is 8.6/10,[86][87] preforming best with viewers 18 and under.[88][89] Audience scores found on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic require only registration and do not ensure that contributing voters have seen the film.[90] Several reviewers speculated that aspects of participation bias and media bias may have contributed to the low critic scores for Sticks & Stones, unlike the audience scores.[91][72][92] Journalist Tim Pool alluded to tampering claims by Rotten Tomatoes as it had curated its critics so specifically that the site had already awarded the special a 0% rating shortly after the airing, while not enabling the availability of user reviews.[93][94]

Reviewers characterised Sticks & Stones as showing the divide amongst critics and audiences.[95][96][97] Amanda Prestigiacomo of The Daily Wire spoke of the scores for Chappelle's special underscoring the disconnect between the media and the general public, to which she stated "This was also sharply exposed with media-beloved so-called comedian Hannah Gadsby, who scored a perfect 100% from the critics with Nanette (2018) [...] Her audience score? A miserable 54%",[98] with Prestigiacomo relating the same disconnect to Captain Marvel (2019).[98] Comedian Norm Macdonald lambasted critics by stating: "If any of you wish to be a comedian, study Sticks and Stones [...] If you don't consider Chappelle funny, you are wrong. If you are a comedian who does not see that he is the best we have, quit."[99] Chris Stuckmann of the Broadcast Film Critics Association alluded to this disconnect by remarking: "Has a standup special ever had this kind of clear divide?"[100] Emma Rosemurgey of UNILAD wrote of the astronomical contrast between critics and regular-viewers in that it "[...] shows a huge cultural divide between the public and the media elites who were previously expected to speak on our behalf."[101] Writing for Film Threat, Dante James touched on the widely unreported fact that the audience score came in at 99% positive, whilst stating: "[...] all of the negative reviews were from six (ultra-progressive) critics who had it in for Chappelle for his last couple of Netflix specials."[102] Other reviewers have made similar observations.[103][104][105][106]

Controversy

Sticks & Stones garnered controversy, receiving backlash for Chappelle's jokes about abuse allegations against Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, and for his commentary on the LGBT community, including a stereotypical impression of a Chinese person which he performed during a joke about transgender people.[107][14] Of the Michael Jackson allegations, Chappelle reiterated his stance to avoid watching HBO's Leaving Neverland (2019), which detailed Michael Jackson's alleged child abuse, as he remarked he doesn't believe the accusers due to Macaulay Culkin's stance in stating he wasn't molested by Jackson nor witnessed the singer assaulting anyone.[108][109] Jackson accuser Wade Robson responded to the special by stating: "Whether [Chappelle] believes I was sexually abused as a child, or not, is of no concern to me. Yet [...] to shame victims and trivialize and condone child sexual abuse in general, especially if the abuser is a celebrity or someone in a place of power, is disgusting, irresponsible and inexcusable on the part of [Chappelle], and on the part of Netflix [...]"[110] James Safechuck, another Jackson accuser, stated that: "I'm heartbroken for all those children who look to see how they will be received when they finally find the courage to speak out about their sexual abuse."[111]

In response to Chappelle's material about the LGBT community, lesbian comedian Elsa Eli Waithe stated: "Sure, everything is fair game. But he uses his platform to make jokes about rape victims, trans folks, and the LGBTQ community. With all that's going on in the world, that's what he chooses to do?"[112] Gay comedian Guy Branum posted on Twitter that "Comedians should support each other and one way Dave Chapelle [sic] could support me more is by calling me a faggot less."[112] Conversely, transgender comedian Daphne Dorman, who Chappelle mentioned during The Punchline, spoke highly of him in stating: "[Chappelle] doesn't consider himself better than me in any way. He isn't punching up or punching down. He's punching lines. That's his job and he's a master of his craft."[113] Gay comedian Alex English stated that Chappelle is "providing visibility to a group of people whom are ignored constantly, especially in the LGBTQ community."[112] Transgender comedian Alison Grillo noted that "I guess the most offensive joke I would say, personally, was the joke about the LGBT people in the car [...] But otherwise, I didn't think it was a terribly mean-spirited performance."[112]

Chappelle's impression of a Chinese person has been called "racist",[14] though Chappelle mentions later in Sticks & Stones that his wife Elaine is Asian.[114][115] In response to the special, Korean American comedian Joel Kim Booster stated that "[...] I think Chappelle used to have really interesting and prescient things to say about power structures [...] I just don't think he's interested in dismantling that anymore. At least not from an interesting place, or at least not from beyond his own point of view."[116]

Analysis

Maureen Callahan of The New York Post, who spoke highly of Chappelle's piece, observed that there is a conversation we're not yet having: "[...] because — as Chappelle predicted in the introduction to his set — fury would be the immediate response to his special, among both mainstream media and online scourges."[117] Callahan broke down Chappelle's reference to Prince's "1999", in which she stated: "He is telling us that he is willing to not just destroy but be destroyed. In a culture that is otherwise full of cheap provocations, from the White House to reality TV, Chappelle is a rarity: A true comic provocateur."[117] During an interview for the National Public Radio, Callahan opinioned that Chappelle is attempting to lure us all into a larger conversation, and believed he knew exactly what he was doing putting the Michael Jackson material at the top of his set,[118] to which she reiterated: "[...] everything else he had to say, by and large, has gone unremarked upon, and that is a shame because there is some really insightful stuff in that set."[118]

Christian Toto of Hollywood in Toto spoke of Chappelle being just one of a growing number of comedians criticizing "cancel culture," such as Adam Carolla, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman.[119] Toto questioned whether Chappelle's political-correctness-skewering Sticks & Stones special could mark "the beginning of the end of the PC police?", to which he remarks: "It's worth noting that Netflix didn't cut ties with Chappelle following the press outrage over his last special [...] On that level alone, Chappelle just scored a major victory in the Culture Wars. Now, will his peers join the fight?"[120] Family therapy Fran Walfish felt an improbability in Chappelle betting into trouble after the controversy,[121] while placing significance on the majority of the American population, in with whom she felt were vastly uneducated about the LGBTQ and trans community, to which Walfish stated: "There is still a great deal of ignorance, fear, and confusion[...] people are unclear and uninformed about various sexual identities."[117]

Comedian Keith Bergman argued that the mean spirited and callous nature of the material within Sticks & Stones may have designed to promote rewatchability, whilst he stated: "Most of the special felt calculated to generate clickbait."[117] Bergman concluded his assessment by remarking that: "Chappelle dropping bombs that enrage one group of people, and whether it's good or heartfelt or even well crafted is beside the point."[117] Another comedian, Rubyn Warren II, drew comparisons between Sticks and Stones and Family Guy, in which he remarked: "[Everybody's] mad at [Chappelle] for his "offensive" comedy, meanwhile Family Guy's been on for 20 years with no problem."[122] Brian Hart, founder of the public relations agency Flackable, spoke of societal shifts from sensitivity after years of swinging toward it, wherein Hart explains that Generation Y has driven this heightened level of social sensitivity for the past decade.[122] He states: "There are hurtful words [...] that needed to be retired [...] But if these sensitive young adults are serious about improving society and the world, they need to learn how to take a joke."[122] Hart concludes by stating Sticks & Stones allows Chappelle to leave Chappelle's Show in the past.[122]

Notes

  1. ^ Allowing Sticks & Stones to run uninterrupted, a secret, unsearchable Dave Chappelle special called Epilogue: The Punchline will play automatically, with Netflix confirming the secret in a sly tweet.[38][39]

References

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