Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Bird Revelation is the perfect rape joke
Dave Chappelle slaps the mic to his knee and laughs—he’s playing the famed Comedy Store. “Everything’s funny, until it happens to you.” From the start of his Netflix special The Bird Revelation, Chappelle’s brow is furrowed, face flat, as he levels his Black experience to that of white feminists who dragged him in the name of #MeToo for expressing “as little empathy as possible.” The audience laughs with the Chappelle’s Showstar as he wonders aloud, “What happened to me? Where did I go for 12 years if I wasn’t raped? Maybe these rapes aren’t the worst of it.”
Chappelle’s entire set is a rape joke, one that won’t leave you holding your sides with laughter, but instead giggling as he does. Chappelle uses an extended metaphor, rather than a quick rumination on men being men. He doesn’t rely on a penis punchline to get the audience to chuckle. The Bird Revelation has been regarded by The New York Times as “the first comedy special to focus on the #MeToo movement.” It is my favorite exploration of the subject. Chappelle captures, at times clumsily, but most pointedly, why I don’t care about the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations.
This Netflix special is not about the Kavanaugh allegations directly. Although Chappelle does cut to the chase on Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey. It was released in December 2017. When I first watched it, Kavanaugh was not a name I had heard. At this point, I can’t remember when I first heard it. The entire Ford v. Kavanaugh case has been a concern I haven’t given much energy too. Other things have been on my mind.
“It’s funny for a Black dude to see white people go through this because this is how it always is for us,” Chappelle says straight up. In The Bird Revelation, he talks about the 400-year nightmare that underpins our country—uses his experiences in Hollywood as a metaphor of a kind of rape. He hints throughout his set about why he left Chappelle’s Show in 2006, and the U.S. altogether. Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Lifeis what Chappelle refers to when he says “I’ll tell you what happened to me, but I can’t say it directly.” He says, “[In the memoir,] Iceberg Slim is trying to control a woman that he finds uncontrollable.” He calls this bit the capitalist manifesto, and “the reason [he] went to South Africa.”
Black paranoia sets the tone in Chappelle’s most intimate of his four Netflix specials. Often this is where we see great Black American comedians at their best: when they take a subject so aching in America’s current consciousness, and sit it next to our country’s greatest sins. Chappelle thinking through #MeToo reminds me of Paul Mooney in his special Analyzing White America. Mooney talks with white Americans who are troubled by 9/11. On stage he is in black, on a high stool, and says “I want to thank white America…because [Black Americans] will get through this terrorist stuff. White folks made us tough. Because they been terrorizing us for 500 years.”
Chappelle is a comedian of this tradition of joke-making. In The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium—one of his first two Netflix specials—he describes the wilds of Hollywood. The Washington, D.C. native gives us a portrait of a superhero who, as he puts it, “Rapes, but saves a lot of lives.” The superhero rapist is, at first, a fictional character in a movie pitch who resembles our current U.S. President. Then later, the superhero rapist is Bill Cosby, who was recently sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for his sexual assaults. But Chappelle in The Bird Revelation, like Mooney and #MeToo, misses it in regards to Black women. He flicks his cigarette, continuing with man-behind-the-desk authority. He says “You notice, a lot of Black dudes haven’t been getting me-too’d.” Chappelle adjusts in his seat. “The reason is because Black women, [since] slavery, won’t tell on us. Because they know that no matter how bad us Black dudes are, white dudes are very mean.” Chappelle gets it mostly right. He hits on a truth, but forgets Anita Hill.
Twenty-seven years ago, law professor Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas dodged these accusations in a frenzy, securing his Associate Justice seat. The Hill-Thomas hearings are obviously urgent today. Hill is a Black woman, who came forward about a Black man, whose harassment against her needed to be considered and tried. Hill coming forward has set a tone for Ford v. Kavanaugh and sparked an on-going national discussion about sexual harassment. Former Vice President Joe Biden, then Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told TeenVogue “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill.” He retrospectively admitted, “I owe her an apology.” The U.S. justice system has never been fair. The Hill-Thomas hearings are infamously known for how poorly they were handled. Hill faced harsh judgement about the case, her race-gender, and her character. She did so with meager defense or support. There was no trending hashtag for her back then.
#MeToo was started by Tarana Burke, an activist known for her work around sexual assault and abuse. But in classic white American tradition, the #MeToo movement has become a cacophony of white feminists. Those feminists are who Chappelle is addressing when he says “I am not saying [jokes] to be mean. I am saying it because it’s funny.” Many did not find his jokes funny, and I thought as a survivor of sexual assault I wouldn’t either. But when a joke is funny, it’s funny.
After watching The Bird Revelation, I turned my television off wondering why Dave Chappelle has rape on his mind? “You know what ladies, you’re right! And they coming for you bitches”, he warns. “To be honest with you, your lives look terrifying to me. I know nothing about being a woman, but I know fear.” I connect with Chappelle here, and am glad he is back from his longtime at-sea, back from searching for his peace of mind—wherever Hollywood had flung it.