Chappelle's 'The Closer' includes a brilliant, humanizing, empathetic portrayal of a trans woman

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Yesterday, I wrote about the usual suspects gearing up to trash and denounce Dave Chappelle because his latest comedy special had just been released on Netflix. The only thing that seemed to have changed since the last round of this in 2019 was that those who clearly would love to see Chappelle canceled have finally realized there’s no chance of that happening.

So last night I watched the entire special and I thought it was very funny. There were a few jokes I didn’t love (“Space Jews”) and one brief mention of his wife that I didn’t care for, mostly because it felt dishonest and false. But those were passing moments in a show that was ultimately centered on his ongoing battle with trans activists. And here is where I have to say that the multiple critics I’d read yesterday who were trashing this show really missed the mark.

The last 20 minutes or so of the special was a humanizing, empathetic portrayal of a trans woman named Daphne Dornan. I can’t really say what I want to say without spoiling this a bit, so if you haven’t seen the special and want to, maybe come back to this after you have.

Basically, Chappelle tells the story of meeting a trans woman who really wanted to be a stand up comic. They met at one of his shows and she made it clear she really looked up to him. Chappelle later invited Dornan to open for one of his shows. He explains he hadn’t realized at the time that Dornan had almost no experience. She had only done 8 comedy shows in her life. So when she got on stage, Chappelle said she was just flat out terrible. Every joke bombed and her set dragged on for 45 minutes.

Afterwards, he went on stage and Dornan was sitting near the front row to watch. Someone in the audience took an ugly shot at Dornan and, in that moment, she gave a perfect response to the heckling which brought the house down. Chappelle said she made up for 45 minutes of bad material with one great line and from that point on they continued a kind of back and forth banter for the rest of the show. At one point Chappelle said she got a bit frustrated and said, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience!”

After the show they talked more and he said he realized she really was funny, albeit not on stage. So he offered to help her hone her craft anytime he was in town (how many would-be comics would kill for an opportunity like that?). Ultimately, Chappelle is mirroring Dornan’s experience as a trans woman and her experience as a would-be comic. In both cases she’s really trying hard to be something that she’s not, at least not fully. But ultimately, Chappelle comes down firmly on the side of respecting what was inside Dornan more than anything else. It’s her effort to become something against the odds and obstacles that is ultimately humanizing and relatable.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark turn in the story. After Dornan defended Chappelle two years ago, she became a target for abuse by other trans activists. She killed herself a few days later. Chappelle started a trust for her young child. And in the same way he saw an innate comic talent that just needed some work and guidance to be brought out, he ultimately concedes Dornan was a hell of a woman.

I honestly don’t know what it is that activists want from Chappelle. In this show he argues for showing respect for every individual and allowing them to be who they want to be, even if it’s sometimes awkward for the rest of us. Isn’t that enough?

Andrew Sullivan watched the show last night as well. Here’s his take on why some people are still so angry at Chappelle.

Whatever else this is, it seems to me to be the opposite of transphobia. Like Rowling, Chappelle supports every law protecting trans people from discrimination; and believes in the dignity and equality of trans people, as he insisted in the show. But he also believes that it is absurd — absurd — to say that a trans woman is in every way indistinguishable from a woman. Because she isn’t.

The current debate, in other words, is not about being pro or anti-trans, in the lazy formula of woke media. In the US, trans people are already protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thanks to Justice Neil Gorsuch. And I literally know of no one who insists on the reality of biological sex who would disapprove of or reverse this.

The debate, rather, is about whether a tiny group of fanatics, empowered by every major cultural institution, can compel or emotionally blackmail other people into saying things that are not true…

The question of trans rights has been settled by the Supreme Court. I’m delighted it has. What we’re dealing with now is something very different. It’s an assault on science; it’s an assault on reality; it’s an attempt not to defend trans people but to cynically use them as pawns in a broader effort to dismantle the concept of binary sex altogether, to remove any distinctions between men and women, so that a gender-free utopia/dystopia can be forced into being…

The weapons deployed in pursuit of this fantasy are those that are always used by those seeking to impose utopia on free people: the brutal hounding of dissent, the capture and control of every single cultural institution, the indoctrination of the young, cancellations, bullying.

I think he’s basically right. We certainly see plenty of evidence of the this being the leading edge of cancel culture with no end in sight. We’ve somehow gone from celebrating freedom, self-determination and human differences to demanding people deny, even to themselves, that there are any differences. Refusing to go along with that isn’t bigotry and I honestly can’t imagine how anyone who watches all of ‘The Closer’ will come out of it with less empathy for trans people.