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'Rothaniel' is a captivating piece of honesty

Jerrod Carmichael
Jerrod Carmichael

This isn’t usually a place where I’m talking about stand-up comedy, although it’s worth remembering that a concert film is a film, and there’s a new one, in particular, that deserves attention.

This is the third special Jerrod Carmichael has done for HBO, and it’s called Rothaniel, which, it turns out, is Carmichael’s real first name, something he doesn’t reveal in the film until the very end. And the entire performance is a revelation, in that this is also where Carmichael publicly comes out as gay, and the movie turns into something quite a bit different from your typical stand-up set.

Carmichael begins by talking about secrets, teasing us about his name, then moving into recounting his father’s infidelities. The man is a brilliant storyteller, leading us gently through, occasionally digressing, occasionally holding multiple threads at once, and it’s only later that we realize he’s really been talking about something else the entire time.

And he displays an astonishing vulnerability in where he allows this all to go, after eventually revealing he’s gay, as he starts to interact with the audience—they begin to ask him questions, difficult questions, and he responds with what appears to be genuine sincerity and honesty. He lets us all see his pain and disappointment and anxiety. He’s quite restrained, but he’s wrestling with a lot—not just his sexuality and his family’s complicated reaction, but who he is, as a person, even indicting his own infectious smile.

The recording of the show is directed by Bo Burnham, who recognizes the intimacy of the situation and frames it accordingly—much of what we see is in close-up, as Carmichael sits alone on the stage with a few blue spotlights. And this, too, reveals things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise: small gestures from Carmichael’s thoughtful, mischievous eyes that betray his hurt. Whispered words from his nearly covered face. It shows an understanding that this is a real, extraordinary, human moment, and one we feel grateful Rothaniel Jerrod Carmichael let us see.

Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel is on HBO Max

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.