In her latest Netflix film foray Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea, Chelsea Handler seeks to tackle systemic racism in the United States and come to grips with how her own white privilege has played a part in it.
Hello, Privilege follows Handler as she travels around the country talking to a wide spectrum of people – comedians, celebrities, activists, Republicans, Democrats, you name it – about the history of white privilege in the U.S. and its direct correlation with racial oppression. Her goal is to better understand, as she puts it, “how to be a better white person for people of color, without making it a thing.”
Handler largely takes a backseat throughout the documentary instead allowing her interviewees to speak freely about their varying perspectives. Her focus remains on asking the probing questions about race that so many (white) Americans have a difficult time addressing and she often (but not always) resists the temptation to turn the conversation back to herself.
Even so, it’s hard to watch the documentary without feeling like, on some level, Handler is exploiting black activism for her own financial gain. Handler tries to pre-emptively squelch any backlash about this in the film by saying,
“People were like, ‘how can you do a documentary about white privilege?’ It’s like, who better than somebody who has benefited from white privilege?”
But even though she says she doesn’t want to make her pursuit to become a better white person “a thing,” by attaching her name to the film and releasing it through streaming giant Netflix, isn’t she doing the exact opposite?
To her credit, Handler makes it clear that she is aware of her own white privilege and how she has perhaps been more tone-deaf to it in the past than she would like to admit.
“I am going to say that I’m as much of an idiot as the rest of us because I thought I was killing it. And here I am in Bel-Air, living the high life, thinking I’m diverse and I’m open-minded and multicultural… I mean, I haven’t seen a black person in this neighborhood ever.”
Perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in the film takes place when Handler reunites with her high-school boyfriend, Tyshawn, a black man who recently finished a 14-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Handler recalls how she and Tyshawn got caught with drugs multiple times, and how, “every time, he was arrested and I was let go. And I really thought the cops always let me go because, like, I had a good personality or was fun. It never occurred to me that it was a racial thing. I should have known better. Of course, it was a racial thing.”
It’s hard to grapple with both sides of this privilege coin. On one hand, Handler holds a unique position of power that she is choosing to use on behalf of an underserved community. She has created a film that spotlights the voices of the disenfranchised; she is amplifying people that are so often pushed to the fringes of society. By using her star power to create such a film, part of me wants to laud Handler for her work.
Alternately though, I can’t imagine that anyone is profiting off of this documentary more than Handler herself. Envisioning a white woman (particularly one with a net worth as astronomical as Handler’s) barging into black spaces with a camera crew in tow, digging for sob stories and soundbites that will turn a profit for her own bank account, is a little difficult to stomach. As one open mic participant points out in the film,
“This is just another example of white privilege…what are you going to do with it rather than come into this space and take?”
In addition, Handler has her own less-than-impeccable professional record. She garnered a fair amount of backlash for the cringe-worthy title of her 2014 novel Uganda Be Kidding Me and the subsequent Netflix comedy special of the same name. During the very filming of Hello, Privilege, Handler had to undergo sexual harassment training after inappropriately touching a woman during an embrace, which she more or less dismissed as a mistake that she made as a “handsy kind of person.”
Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea. concludes with Handler asking Black Lives Matter activists,
“How can white people help when they don’t know how to?”
As one activist points out,
“It’s not a one-time project for a Netflix series. It’s a lifelong, daily, 100% being committed to showing up for racial justice for the rest of our lives.”
This message and so many others are wonderful moments within the film that are worth taking to heart. I can only hope that, somewhere off-camera, Chelsea Handler is doing the same.
Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea. is currently streaming on Netflix.
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Feature photo courtesy Netflix