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Netflix boss says he ‘screwed up’ amid Chappelle backlash, but still defends special

Ted Sarandos wearing a black suit
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos attends a 2018 FYC event in Hollywood.
(Richard Shotwell / Invision)

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos admitted Tuesday to mishandling the fallout from Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer,” while maintaining that the special doesn’t qualify as hate speech.

In a new interview with Variety, Sarandos said he “screwed up” when responding internally to employees’ concerns about “The Closer,” which contains a significant amount of transphobic material.

That internal response, which argued that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” was recently leaked to the media and widely criticized online.

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“Obviously, I screwed up that internal communication,” Sarandos told Variety. “I should have led with a lot more humanity. ... I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything. I didn’t do that.”

Transgender Netflix staffers are protesting the streamer’s decision to release Dave Chappelle’s new comedy special, which contains transphobic material.

Sarandos’ admission arrived on the eve of a highly publicized staff walkout organized by transgender Netflix employees protesting the streaming giant’s move to release “The Closer.” A subsequent rally, attended by staffers, activists, public figures and other allies, is set to commence at 10:30 a.m. today outside Netflix’s Los Angeles offices.

“Of course storytelling has real impact in the real world,” Sarandos continued.

“I reiterate that because it’s why I work here, it’s why we do what we do. That impact can be hugely positive, and it can be quite negative. So, I would have been better in that communication.”

Still, the streaming exec reiterated his support for “The Closer” by claiming that the Chappelle special does not cross the line into hate speech. Sarandos defined hate speech as rhetoric with the “intent to cause physical harm.”

Members of the LGBTQ+ community were not pleased with comedian Dave Chappelle co-signing J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks in his new Netflix special.

“We are trying to support creative freedom and artistic expression among the artists that work at Netflix,” Sarandos said, echoing his previous remarks.

“Sometimes, and we do make sure our employees understand this, because of that — because we’re trying to entertain the world, and the world is made up of folks with a lot of different sensibilities and beliefs and senses of humor and all those things — sometimes, there will be things on Netflix that you dislike.”

While Sarandos confirmed he has spoken with Chappelle since “The Closer” premiered earlier this month, he said they have not discussed the employee uprising prompted by the stand-up routine.

“I would generally say he was appreciative of supporting the show and his ability to do his act,” Sarandos said.

Critics accuse Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special of transphobia. Here’s what some LGBTQ comics think

As for this week’s walkout, Sarandos noted that he is aware of the employees’ demands, which include creating a separate fund to invest in trans and nonbinary talent and attaching a disclaimer to “The Closer.”

“We have a creative equity fund that we’ve heavily invested in exactly the things I believe they are asking about,” Sarandos said.

It’s worth noting that walkout organizers have stipulated the new fund “should exist in addition to the existing” fund Sarandos is referring to.

“We have and continue to invest enormous amounts of content dollars in LGBTQ+ stories for the world and giving them a global platform,” Sarandos continued. “Specifically, trans and nonbinary content as well. That’s obviously continued strong, and I think we’ll continue on that path.”

After trans Netflix employees protested, these stories explain the backlash sparked by Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, “The Closer.”

Activist Ashlee Marie Preston, who will lead the rally portion of today’s walkout, called Sarandos’ most recent statements on the Chappelle controversy “a great start,” while maintaining that “there are some things left to iron out, and voices to be heard that were ignored.”

“We appreciate the willingness to have transformative dialogue,” Preston wrote on Instagram Tuesday.

“We still look forward to the rally ... You can go through and see all the transphobia and harm that was spread throughout my comment threads and other trans peoples pages simply for asking for basic dignity and respect,” Preston said. “This is part of the repair process. We hope you are prepared to take in what we present.”


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