Chappelle Netflix special is ‘hate speech disguised as jokes,’ advocate says

The blowback to Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, produced by Netflix, has reached a boiling point. Netflix employees walked off the job Wednesday, demanding the company better support its transgender workers. Imara Jones, creator of TransLash Media, a media non-profit that focuses on the transgender community, joins Amna Nawaz with more perspective on the matter.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The blowback to Dave Chappelle latest comedy special, produced by Netflix, has reached a boiling point.

    Today, several dozen of Netflix's thousands of employees walked off the job, demanding the company better support its transgender workers.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this all goes back to "The Closer," Dave Chappelle's highly watched special.

    But employees at Netflix, including some who walked off the job today, criticized that special, arguing that it's offensive and could lead to harm of transgender people. In it, Chappelle compares trans identity to blackface and jokes about killing a woman.

    Now, Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos initially doubled down on his support for Chappelle and the special. Yesterday, he said the special will remain online, but apologized, saying — quote — "I screwed up" and — quote — "I should've made sure to recognize that a group of our employees was hurting."

    Joining me now is Imara Jones. She's the creator of TransLash Media. That's a media nonprofit that focuses on the transgender community. She also co-chaired the first-ever U.N. high-level meeting on gender diversity.

    Imara, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    I have to point out, even after that acknowledgment from Sarandos saying he screwed up, they're standing by the decision to stream this special. They're saying that it fits into their stance of what they call free artistic expression, and, sometimes, they say, there's just content people won't like .

    What do you make of the way that they're responding to this at Netflix?

  • Imara Jones, TransLash Media:

    Well, I think that it shows that Netflix signs off on this content from the very highest level.

    And we know from reporting from Bloomberg that, actually, Ted Sarandos signed off on this personally, which is a huge warning sign. Usually, in media companies, when content decisions have to go to the highest levels, it means no one else wanted to have their fingerprints on it. And what is strange about that is that people want to embrace success within companies.

    And so I think that what we're seeing, from the firing of employees to the personal statements that he made, not once, but twice last week, to the other actions that Netflix is taking, that Ted Sarandos, at the highest level of that company, believes in this content, believes in the views expressed by it, and, as he said last week, doesn't see that there's any real-world harm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, explain to me that real-world harm, because I think this is what people may question, is — if they don't understand the backlash. Help us understand. What's your concern? What's at stake here?

  • Imara Jones:

    Well, I think the first thing to realize is that this is essentially hate speech disguised as jokes.

    And that is an essential point here, that no one is contesting that humor can be outrageous, sometimes offensive. But I think that this crosses the line into hate speech that's disguised as jokes.

    And one of the ways in which it puts people at harm is that it essentially argues that trans people aren't real. It essentially argues that Black trans people aren't real. And at the heart of the violence against trans people, specifically Black trans people, where we have broken records of murders of Black trans women for several years in a row now, at the heart of those murders, when you look into them, is the belief by the perpetrators that they weren't doing anything wrong, that is to say, that the person isn't human.

    And, here, we have that reinforced on a massive scale, the questioning of the fundamental humanity of trans people disguised as jokes, which is at the heart of the violence against our community.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just to underscore that point, Imara, the data does speak volumes here. According to Human Rights Campaign, 2021 is set to be the most violent year on record for transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

    I also want to put to you, though, this other point that the CEO makes, that this is on brand for Dave Chappelle and for his brand of comedy, that comedy is supposed to be provocative. And a lot of his defenders say, look, there are a lot of offensive jokes in here. He jokes about Chinese people. He jokes about Jewish people. He has long made derogatory comments about women.

    They just say comedy is supposed to be provocative. Shouldn't there be a space for that?

    What do you say to that?

  • Imara Jones:

    Well, it's also supposed to be intelligent. And there's nothing intelligent about mocking trans people. There's nothing interesting or provocative about mocking trans people. There's nothing interesting in joking about rape.

    And it's really hard to see how any of that stands. And what may be different is that, in the past, there would be a sprinkling of those types of jokes and his comedy, in the midst of other things that were perhaps insightful, all the rest of it.

    I think that what fascinates me about this special is that, if you were to take out all of the anti-LGBTQIA material, there would not be much of a special left. That's pretty much what the entire special is. And he has decided to go out in this final special, he says, not on a high of anything intelligent, but in terms of settling scores with a community that he doesn't like.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should point out, along with today's walkout at Netflix, that trans employees there submitted a list of demands to the company, more investment in trans talent, a revision of all the internal processes that decide which content gets made and how it goes out there.

    Imara, what should we expect to see from Netflix next?

  • Imara Jones:

    I think that what we should expect to see is more of the same.

    I think that, when you have the commitment from now the most powerful man in Hollywood from the most powerful streaming service in the world that says it will make commitments to put out $6 billion worth of content next year, when he's behind this type of material, I don't know that we will see much change from Netflix, although I hope that I'm proved wrong.

    I think what we should see is what the employees are demanding. What they are demanding is a radically different platform that will allow trans creators the opportunities to be able to be heard,

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I hear you saying you would like to see change, but you're not optimistic it will happen. Is that right?

  • Imara Jones:

    I'm not optimistic in the short term.

    I do think, Amna, that there are a couple of things that will eat away at Netflix that will drive change. I think the first of those, really quickly, is the fact that there are lots of people who are saying that they don't wish to work with Netflix right now. I have had producers and show runners tell me that. They are having people be fired and resigned.

    And the third thing is that Netflix may become a stigma brand. That is to say, it may no longer be a place where you're proud to say that you work. And if that's the case, they will lose employees to their competitors who are dying to know Netflix's secrets.

    And if those employees — employers allow those new employees to not only bring their knowledge, but also this desire for more diverse content, over time, Netflix could be in real trouble.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will be watching and following, for sure.

    That is Imara Jones, the creator of TransLash Media, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Imara Jones:

    Thank you so much.

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