I first heard about Chelsea Handler years ago while I was working with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
My friend Laura, one of those leggy Radio City Rockettes, introduced me to Handler via her television show. I didn’t make it through the entire episode. The encounter left me nonplussed and curious as to why Laura was so taken with the comedian; especially given that my Rockette friend was accomplished in her own right, humble, and compassionate. In the few minutes I watched the show, Handler came across as a loud-mouthed White girl with mediocre talent lauded for eschewing the sweet, blond female trope of American privilege — the very antithesis of my friend.
Laura and I are close. We formed a fast friendship fifteen years ago during the Buffalo-Boston tour of the Christmas Spectacular, one we’ve maintained since our time away from the show. Laura has since retired as a Rockette, become an expert yogini, embraced Buddhism, and traveled India alone on what I refer to as her six-month “Eat, Love, Dance” tour of self-discovery. And I hung up my pointy-toed elf shoes to return to design and writing to become this reluctant equal rights activist/writer.
And as you may know, I started a little online publication, Our Human Family, which is all about equality and helping people move away from a bigoted worldview toward one that’s more inclusive.
A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with one of the writers for the publication, antiracism educator and author Tim Wise, about an article he submitted.
Near the end of the conversation, Tim mentioned having worked with Handler on a Netflix documentary. I pulled my eyebrows off the ceiling as the idea of a Wise-Handler mash-up struck as . . . peculiar. The woman personifies privilege, not because of her race and gender, but because she has the self-awareness of a bull in a china shop. Tim has excoriated people in his writing for things much less than Handler’s lack of self-awareness. Maybe she was ball-gagged during the documentary’s filming. It was a mystery to me.
For those of you who don’t know, Tim’s a pretty big deal. He’s no joke and the guy does not mince words when it comes to antiracism. I’ve read a lot of his writing and he’s spent a lot of time with Black Americans and knows our history and the impact White supremacy has had on the People of Color. So for Tim to have worked with her—wait.
I know what you’re thinking: there’s got to be some other reason why Clay is not a fan of Handler.
A few years ago, I just happened to catch Handler and O’Donnell on Rosie’s show yukking it up and demeaning Little People. I’ve been noticeably short, Black, and gay all my life, and people’s abject displays of bigotry rarely raise my hackles. But O’Donnell and Handler together put a palpable display of hypocrisy and ableism that sent me running to my laptop to bang-out an open letter to Rosie.
So there you have it. But I told Tim I’d check out the documentary, after all, I like his antiracism work.
And I did. Albeit a little suspect.
The documentary “Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.” is Handler’s attempt at confronting white privilege in her own life and in America. There are plenty of people out there who talk a pretty good talk about antiracism and equality, but rarely follow through with it. And as her documentary clearly shows there are a great number of people who feel that America is well past any issues of race and discussing these matters only exacerbates the matter. So right up front let me say that I give her credit for attempting to draw attention to the matter.
As someone who knows people who were raised in patently racist environments and have moved from a racist worldview to one that is more inclusive and honoring of Black People and People of Color, I am compelled to give Handler the benefit of the doubt. But as I’ve said several times before, paradigm shifts like these don’t happen overnight or during the making a documentary. Ask anyone who’s embarked on the journey, it’s a continuing and lifelong process. But the documentary raises numerous questions and takes my breath away in its blind spots.
I’ll resist the temptation to bore you with a tedious dissection of the documentary. You can laugh, applaud, cringe, wince, and grimace your way through it yourself.
The documentary begins as a motorized cedar gate beckons viewers inside for a look at Handler’s home, which is situated in the hills of Los Angeles’ Bel Air enclave. (Bel Air as in “Fresh Prince of . . . ”) Handler’s home is complete with all the accoutrement, including post-Modern furnishings, a mod gold hand sculpture extending its finger middle in defiance, a minimalist swimming pool, and a Latina housekeeper compliantly keeping everything immaculate. I guess this is set-up is for people who are unfamiliar with lavish celebrity lifestyles. Nice touch, Chels. Always thinking about others. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge people for having nice things. No one expects celebrities to live in cardboard condos, but the display of privilege in a doc whose purpose is to lessen privilege’s impact lacks self-awareness.
And for those viewers not familiar with Handler, there’s a brief travelogue through her rise to stardom and accomplishments via snapshots, concert clips, book covers, et cetera. And to button up the intro, Handler tells us, among other things, “that she wants to be a better White person to People of Color without making it a thing.”
Hm. Well, nothing makes a thing a bigger thing like a celebrity producing and starring in a documentary about the thing you don’t want to be a thing.
When Handler is “on” and doing her schtick, the documentary falls flat and feels forced. Even when she’s interviewing fellow comedians/actors Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart. Handler wields her ignorance about privilege like a nail-studded cudgel and inflicts damage upon all within the camera’s lens, including herself. Her visits a White rapper and Black Trump supporter, discussions with attendees of an Octoberfest celebration, and Orange County California Republicans
“Hello, Privilege.” is sprinkled with wonderful and insightful moments when issues are addressed head-on. This documentary is at its best when Handler isn’t performing for the camera. Her authenticity shines when she asks legitimate questions of Tim Wise, W. Kamau Bell, Emory University historian Carol Anderson, and others. When Handler steps back and puts them in the spotlight and gives them the opportunity to share their knowledge the conversations are much less stilted and forced, and Handler seems to express genuine concern about the subject matter. And at times we even see her face awash in the truth of new revelations.
Handler’s visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial) in Birmingham, Alabama, is sobering. It’s difficult for Handler or anyone to be comic in a memorial dedicated to the lives of Black Americans who lost their lives to terror lynchings between 1890 and 1950. And even more so as Ruby Sales, Civil Rights activist and historian tells Handler horrific details about the reign of terror and “transgressions” for which Black people were commonly lynched.
And of course, there’s the segment where Handler visits her formerly incarcerated Black boyfriend. Yes, his story is compelling, but not uncommon. I wasn’t quite sure if I was being manipulated or what. So, I for one, let the moment pass.
All in all, the documentary careens between three tones or moods: attempts at levity that land close to mockery, educational, deeply pensive. This trio works well in a Tarantino film, not so much for this documentary. As someone whose life and livelihood are impacted daily by privilege and white supremacy, as are those of my family and friends, I am skeptical of the real purpose of the documentary. One documentary does not an antiracist make. The journey is ongoing.
I hope that Chelsea understands that privilege is best handled when it’s dismantled, but leveraging it to provide both a platform and opportunities for the disenfranchised comes in a close second. At the very least Handler’s viewers are now aware of the realities of terror lynchings, voter suppression, mass incarceration, economic and educational disparities, and this thing called privilege. I guess we’ll know for sure if Handler’s baptism by documentary heralds the rebirth of a more a self-aware Chelsea or is simply another hot take on a hot topic.