Protestors gathered outside Netflix in Los Angeles on Wednesday, angry over a new Dave Chappelle comedy special that has sparked accusations the streamer is trampling transgender rights and profiting from hate speech.
A few dozen staff walked off the job and were joined by a similar number of trans activists and their supporters for a demonstration calling for better representation at the Hollywood powerhouse.
“We hope to add clarity as to why the jokes that were made are harmful,” said protest organiser Ashlee Marie Preston.
“More importantly, moving away from Dave Chappelle — this is a larger conversation about how companies capitalize off of tension (and use) algorithmic science to manipulate and distort our perceptions of ourselves and one another.”
The protest came with Netflix engulfed in an intense and highly public controversy over Chappelle’s “The Closer,” in which the stand-up star insists “gender is a fact” and accuses LGBTQ people of being “too sensitive.”
The row has been going on for two weeks, while “The Closer” has ridden high in Netflix’s list of most-watched titles.
On Tuesday the company moved to try to soothe anger after joint-CEO Ted Sarandos defended the show and appeared to dismiss concerns.
“We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content,” a statement said, adding the company “understands the deep hurt that’s been caused.”
Protesters on Wednesday echoed transgender Netflix employee Terra Field’s calls to add a content warning to “The Closer,” and to promote more “queer and trans comedians and talent.”
“A place can’t be a great place to work if someone has to betray their community to do so,” Field wrote in a blog post Monday.
“The Closer” has been condemned by LGBTQ groups, which cited studies linking stereotypes about minorities to real-world harm.
Sarandos wrote to staff in a leaked internal memo last week that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” and emphasized the importance of defending “artistic freedom.”
‘I screwed up’
But the co-CEO gave interviews to multiple Hollywood trade publications Tuesday in which he admitted: “I screwed up.”
“I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made,” he told The HollywoodReporter.
While agreeing that “content on screen can have impact in the real world, positive and negative,” Sarandos reiterated his belief that the Chappelle stand-up should not be taken down or have any disclaimer added.
“This group of employees felt a little betrayed because we’ve created such a great place to work that they forgot that sometimes these challenges will come up,” said Sarandos.
Three employees including Field were reportedly suspended last week after crashing a virtual meeting for executives, but later reinstated. Another was sacked for leaking internal data about the cost of the program.
The walkout and rally have drawn support from film and television celebrities such as Jameela Jamil (“The Good Place”) and Jonathan Van Ness (“Queer Eye”), who have recorded a video message expressing “love and support” for the movement.
Acclaimed comedian Hannah Gadbsy — who has her own popular Netflix specials — last week called the streaming giant an “amoral algorithm cult.”
Chappelle has been accused of mocking transgender people in the past, but remains hugely popular.
In “The Closer,” he describes a US rapper who “punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS,” compares trans women to the use of Blackface, and jokes about threatening to kill a woman and stash her body in his car.
Chappelle — who is Black — also argues that white gay people “are minorities until they need to be white again,” and that LGBTQ communities have made progress in a few years that Black people have not enjoyed in decades.
A small counter-protest gathered on Wednesday in support of Chappelle, with some carrying signs saying “Jokes Are Funny”.