Dave Chappelle’s people don’t want anybody to review his new “Untitled” documentary project. That’s a weird call, considering that the film — an impressive account of how the comedian found a way to host live stand-up shows during the jittery first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, directed by Oscar-winning “American Factory” duo Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar — presents a very different, far more flattering side of Chappelle from the one being raked over the coals since “The Closer” debuted last month on Netflix.
In “Chappelle’s Show,” which debuted in 2003 on Comedy Central and turned the comedian into a household name, he took on tricky race issues, earning cred from fans (and wariness within the industry) when we walked away from a $50 million contract in the middle of season three. As reported at the time, Chappelle felt his audience had gotten too big and worried that some of the satire — specifically, a bit involving blackface — was getting the wrong kind of laughter.
I don’t want to dwell on “The Closer” here, though it’s impossible to write about a new Chappelle movie without addressing it. In going out of his way to target trans people with so much of the special, Chappelle comes off as petty and out of touch. Whether intending to be provocative or ironic, it was dumb to double down on an old beef for the sake of a few cheap chuckles. I thought Chappelle was smarter than that. And now, the backlash — both predictable and understandable — has overshadowed the praise that ought to be coming his way for a series of socially-distanced, COVID-conscious group shows he held last summer.
Those gatherings, designed to overcome the fear and uncertainty felt during the early days of the pandemic, are the focus of the “Untitled” documentary, which the comedian seems proud to share with his supporters. But not the press, which is why I had to resort to booking a trip to San Francisco in order to review a film that’s being seen by packed auditoriums of people.
Technically, “Untitled” has been around for a few months already (it world premiered on closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival in June), though Chappelle and company haven’t managed to land a distributor — which might also have to do with whatever price they’re asking for it. Three days after “The Closer” bowed, he showed “Untitled” at the Hollywood Bowl, enlisting Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg to join him on stage after the screening. Now, he’s officially taking the show on the road, touting it as the film the world doesn’t want you to see.
“They be trying to stop me like a new weed-smoking Jesus,” he quipped after the screening in San Francisco, to which a fan near me shouted back, “We won’t let them cancel you, Dave!”
By bringing “Untitled” directly to his base, Chappelle is testing a relatively unprecedented release strategy for a documentary: Though audiences are essentially paying to see him and whichever “friends” (surprise-guest celebrities) he brings along, Chappelle is making the film the main attraction, screening “Untitled” between live comedy and music performances, with tickets selling for a few hundred dollars a pop.
Part concert film, part making-of, “Untitled” (which actually bears the title “Dave Chappelle Live in Real Life” on screen) reminds us of what makes Chappelle such an important cultural force in the first place. Set over the opening months of the pandemic, the doc takes place in Chappelle’s hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a quaint community where the comic and his wife Elaine self-quarantined in comfort, until the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police triggered something in Chappelle — and the nation at large.
That incident compelled Chappelle to speak up — which he did quite brilliantly, as anyone who watched his Netflix-produced, YouTube-released special “8:46” knows — although that set was just the tip of a larger iceberg, thoroughly captured by Dayton-based duo Reichert and Bognar, fellow Ohioans whom Chappelle invited to document his ambitious plan to do a series of COVID-safe outdoor shows. Elsewhere in the country, comedians were trying to do their thing via drive-in and live-streamed shows, though without audience feedback (specifically, the sound of laughter), the results were mostly painful.
Leaning on locals Steve and Stacey Wirrig, who agreed to let him use their abandoned cornfield, Chappelle found a way to host nightly stand-up shows for 100 or so socially distanced fans at a time. Drawing from the same impressive Rolodex he uses for his arena shows, Chappelle welcomed a staggering roster of fellow comics — a list that ranged from Chris Rock to Michael Che. The pitch: Fly to Ohio for a day or longer and perform alongside him on stage, maybe even do some canoeing while in town.
While most of the country was stuck at home waiting on a vaccine — or joining in Black Lives Matter protests around the country, like the ones his daughter can be seen marshalling in the doc — Chappelle innovated a new way to treat comedy in the time of COVID. I remember catching Chappelle at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival in 2016. He did half a dozen shows, two a night, and they were epic, as the chain-smoking raconteur riffed on whatever came to mind. His sets ran obscenely over time, such that the late-show audience would patiently wait for the earlier crowd to get out, then file in to experience a fresh and almost entirely different hour or two of material.
In “Untitled,” Chappelle doesn’t seem especially jokey. Instead, he sounds angry, and justifiably so. He’s been so sharp and so consistent in his critique of racism over the course of his career that we listen just as intently, if not more so, now that he’s getting serious. “You know the only reason I care? George Floyd,” he explains early on. Onscreen, Chappelle uses his gift as a weapon, and his aim is true. Even so, he serves mostly as an emcee, watching his friends perform via backstage monitors, offering his professional take on how the pandemic seems to be pushing them to another level.
Directors Reichert and Bognar observe as every new arrival, no matter how famous, submits to the indignity of having a COVID swab jabbed up their skull — “My nose just got Harvey Weinsteined,” Chappelle jokes — before they’re allowed to join the bubble. “Quarantine’s a mindset,” observes Jon Stewart, who flies in from New York and seems hesitant to remove his mask around the others, while looking positively elated to have his “first multi-human conversation in months.” Some, like Michelle Wolf and Donnell Rawlings, spend weeks in Yellow Springs, while others pop in for just a show or two — among them Trevor Noah, Tiffany Haddish and David Letterman. The lineup isn’t limited to comedians either. In fact, poet Amir Sulaiman delivers the film’s most potent set with the words, “We’re just trying to make Black history, but it’s like they’re trying to make Blacks history.”
When he goes on stage, Chappelle can be vulgar and offensive. Like Lenny Bruce, he often forgoes traditional jokes in favor of seemingly extemporaneous sets on various hot-button topics, including whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into lately. (After being arrested on obscenity charges, Bruce milked that experience in his famous Berkeley concert in 1969.) In Chappelle’s case, he may be one of the world’s top-earning comedians, but he’s more comfortable playing the underdog, and the doc is designed to reinforce that notion.
At the San Francisco show, audiences booed at the point in the movie when the Wirrigs’ rural neighbors file a series of complaints. Some didn’t like the noise, others found the material tough to explain to their kids. Enter the movie’s hapless antagonist, a pedantic and seemingly humorless zoning inspector named Richard Zopf charged with cracking down on the unauthorized comedy shows. Chappelle relishes the challenge, joking about how this conservative reaction makes Yellow Springs feel like the town in “Footloose,” where dancing is banned on religious grounds (cue an irreverent montage set to that movie’s infectious theme).
In Ohio, Chappelle comes off as progressive, but “The Closer” suggests he’s lost some of his edge. In San Francisco, Chappelle accused the media of amplifying conflict. (Expecting demonstrations outside the Chase Center, the woman in line in front of me seemed disappointed, like she was looking forward to crossing a picket line.) Chappelle dubbed the controversy “fake news,” saying, “They will have you thinking there’s a transgender hit squad trying to kill me.” His message, he insisted, has always been “to be kind to one another” — with the documentary serving as a kind of damage control, emphasizing the comedian’s more humanitarian side as it does.
Turns out, “HUMAN” — or “Help Us Make A Nation” — was the name of an organization Chappelle’s college-academic father was deeply engaged with. Dad’s motto: “Everything happens locally.” That’s the same philosophy that drives Chappelle’s Ohio cornfield shows, including the blowout July 4 event featuring Tiffany Haddish, Erykah Badu and Common, generously sampled in “Untitled.” There are plenty of tensions in Yellow Springs — racial, political, economic — but the doc shows that Chappelle’s efforts succeeded in bringing $9 million to an occasionally ungrateful town at a time when mom-and-pop businesses were hurting the most. And clearly, they changed some minds in the process.
Instead, “Untitled” is meant to serve as a time capsule of an incredible creative response to an exceptional crisis, as the pandemic compounds the myriad societal concerns Chappelle has been pointing out all along. For the moment, Chappelle is taking that message straight to his base, but it’s easy to imagine it landing on a streaming service down the road, if Chappelle can untangle the mess he’s made for himself. “I’m not trying to hurt nobody. I’m trying to celebrate everybody,” he swore in San Francisco. In the end, this is the movie — not “The Closer” — that deserves the widest possible audience.