Chelsea Handler’s new Netflix white privilege documentary misses the mark
Netflix

Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead.

What happens when a wildly successful rich white woman comedian realizes she’s had access to immeasurable opportunities throughout her life? She makes a documentary centering herself. Chelsea Handler’s newest Netflix documentary, Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea, does exactly that. Almost five years after publishing a book distastefully titled Uganda Be Kidding Me, Handler is now a New York Times bestselling author for the fourth time with her Life Will Be the Death of Me: . . . and you too! The comedian’s career continues to thrive, despite some previous racial faux pas, as she embarks on a personal journey to tackle some difficult personal topics.

Handler’s latest venture starts off well-intentioned enough. The former late-night talk show host begins an honest conversation around the various ways she has benefitted from being white throughout her career. “I was white, I was pretty, and I had a big mouth, and for some reason, that was rewarded in Hollywood,” she says in her film’s intro. The documentary quickly goes south, however, in what becomes an hour-long run of cringe-worthy interviews, lackluster self-reflection, and a mediocre analysis of racial relations.

One of the few successful aspects of the documentary was actually hearing from community activists who spoke thoughtfully on the matter. Throughout filming Handler is confronted about what she intends to do once the cameras turn off. “One of the things I’ve noticed about white privilege is that it always ends up being about people of color’s experience—and it never becomes about whiteness,” says one University of Southern California student at an open mic event. “You do need to learn about others, but you also need to learn about yourself.”

Despite this direct piece of advice, Handler spends a better part of the hour running around asking (mostly) Black people what she can do to be a “better white person.” The framing of the question fails to acknowledge the vast institutional barriers and lack of generational wealth that communities of color face compared to segments of the white population—not to mention what might seem like smaller privileges, such as having a job interviewer or landlord call you back. Handler also seems to clumsily muddle the lines between racial and economic privileges, both of which she is a benefactor of.

Although Handler acknowledges that many opportunities came “easily” to her, she never stops to dissect the reasons why. The comedian primarily speaks about privilege through the lens of her own experiences. She discusses growing up in a white middle-class community, and how when she was 16 years old, she went off to live with her brother in a “multicultural” (read: Black) neighborhood and gets romantically involved with a teenaged boy named Tyshaun. She describes this period of her life as being chaotic, insisting that she was able to talk her way out of multiple arrests.

Handler reaches out to Tyshaun in hopes of reconnecting and having an honest conversation about her whiteness (sigh). The reunion is an uncomfortable ordeal, with Handler treating it as some type of “trauma tour,” pressing Tyshaun about his prior criminal convictions and his family’s history with addiction. To make matters worse, Tyshaun recalls being forced to watch Handler’s career blow up all over television and in the media while he remained locked away in prison for fifteen years.

One particularly disheartening part of her previous relationship is the fact that Handler’s father forces her to get an abortion when she becomes pregnant with Tyshaun’s child. There is inherent racism attached to the idea that Handler was free to “experiment” and live within proximity to Blackness, so long as she had no permanent attachment to it. While neither Tyshaun nor his family express any ill will towards Handler, she offers them nothing in return for their participation in her documentary.

There are a few efforts made by Handler to ignite discourse with other white people. The comedian sits and chats with self-proclaimed “white-trash” Tennessee rapper, Jelly Roll, who discusses his views on how “the system” has failed the working class, for instance. Handler also visits Oktoberfest in the small Georgia town of Helen where she says she hopes to “talk to a bunch of white racists.” The segment, while humorous, seemed more like a late-night-talk show bit, and provided no real point other than to vilify Southern white communities.

One of the more compelling parts of the documentary actually occurs during a discussion with a small group of conservative white women. During the conversation, Republican political consultant Kathy Tavoularis acknowledges and “agrees” with the existence of white privilege. She is immediately challenged by another woman in the group, so she backtracks by saying she doesn’t think that white privilege is real, but rather that Black “disprivilege” exists.

Tavoularis’s response perfectly encapsulates the lack of understanding surrounding institutionalized anti-Blackness in the country. The oppression of others is only a feasible concept for people, like Handler, when there is a hypothetical boogeyman to point fingers at—not when there are three fingers pointing right back at her.

I’m not going to lie, Handler’s history of engaging in racist behaviors makes this “noble” endeavor difficult to believe. From her fetishization of Black men to the publication of her offensively-titled book, she has repeatedly displayed a lack of remorse. During an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Handler also revealed she was forced to take sexual harassment training after she groped a Black woman while filming the spoken word night event at USC, proving yet again that Handler is woefully unaware of how she upholds white supremacy.

Unfortunately, Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea falls short of its potential. Like so many Hollywood liberals, Handler casually distances herself from conversations surrounding systemic racism in this country, instead choosing to focus on virtue signaling. Although the comedian may have had good intentions, the film’s conclusion leaves too much unaccounted. Handler ends the documentary without communicating any plans to pursue a long-term commitment towards anti-racism work, leaving viewers with the bitter aftertaste of a publicity stunt.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias is a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias has invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. She has written and conducted research in several parts of the world; most recently Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she presented on disability awareness at the U.S. Consulate. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities. She considers her experiences a privilege, one that she hopes to use as a platform for spreading socio-political consciousness. In her spare time Michelle enjoys drinking pricey wines and watching old school zombie flicks.  

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