Dave Chappelle: When Race Meets Fame

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A media critic notes Dave Chappelle's struggles with stardom. The stand-up comic's TV show earned him a huge contract, and shortly afterward he left the show to spend time in Africa. Now he's back, and has begun to explain his mixed feelings about fame to the public.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, next time on NEWS AND NOTES; last year's record number of hurricanes pushed the subject of global warming back into the media spotlight. We'll look at the issue of global warming and what's being done to address it. That's next time on NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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GORDON: Yesterday on our program, superstar Mariah Carey talked about the psychological pressure of fame. Over the years, the hardship of stardom has been well documented. Many have wondered, can the lure of fame or even the grind of everyday life sometimes become too much?

Here's commentator Amy Alexander's take.

Ms. AMY ALEXANDER (Author & Media Critic, Silver Spring): Terrence Howard and Tyler Perry might be the latest brown skin toast of Tinsel Town, but I love me some Dave Chappelle. I went to see his current movie, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, during its opening weekend early in March. The timing of Chappell's first solo cinematic outing is impeccable.

Since January, when he began making surprise standup appearances in a few towns, and February when he sat down with Oprah Winfrey and with Bravo Network's James Lipton, Chappelle has been making a comeback. His much-publicized disappearance last year, caused an uproar in the entertainment industry. How could any one, let alone a black man, just walk out on a $50 million contract to produce and star on his own television show.

Amidst all that coverage last year, the recurring subtext, planted and cultivated by Chappelle's network handlers, according to the comedian, was that Dave had gone crazy. The comedian, once he surfaced in South Africa, talked to Time Magazine. He said then that he had sought counseling but he denied rumors that he had lost his mind, or been waylaid by drug addiction.

If that article was accurate, he sounded honestly perplexed and reluctant, understandably, to label the nature of his distress. But the image of Chappelle as an out of control, ungrateful lunatic persisted. I can only guess at the kinds of pressures felt by famous black men of Chappelle's young age--he's 32. Once they realize the intense scrutiny and heightened responsibility that comes with power, not to mention buckets of money.

But having studied the complex subject of black American mental health and black self-image, I'm aware of the vast array of external factors that can negatively affect both. Even regular brothers struggle daily to strike a balance between their own self-dignity and natural ambitions, and the nagging, widely held stereotypes that unfortunately still haunt us. You know them and Dave Chappelle has made millions satirizing them. The big black stud, the shuffling sellout, and so on.

His rise in the insanely lucrative entertainment world has come with a high price. Chappelle told Oprah he had an epiphany on the set one day, during the shooting of his ill-fated third season, when a white person on the set began laughing in a way that didn't seem right. He was laughing at me, not with me, Chappell said. His recent interviews hint at his struggle against internalizing one particularly pernicious ancient stereotype: that of the scary, out of control black man.

In the February interviews on Bravo and the Oprah show, Chappelle talked honestly, if somewhat confusedly, about his crisis of conscience. He insisted that he is not crazy. That word is too often attached to blacks who start to think about responsibility and seek accountability, Chappell said.

He cited comedian Martin Lawrence and singer Mariah Carey, as other black performers who had been labeled crazy after experiencing professional and personal trouble. Martin Lawrence and Mariah Carey, these are strong people, Chappell said.

While I wish he hadn't associated the word crazy with weakness, since the strong black man stereotype can work against a brother when he needs help, I think I get his larger point. Never mind the old Hollywood question, What price, fame? In Chappelle's universe, maybe the question is more direct, What price, my soul?

GORDON: Amy Alexander is an author and media critic living in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is NPR News.

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