Comedian Dave Chappelle has been the subject of much speculation since he spontaneously walked away from a $50 million dollar deal with Comedy Central. Whatever his reasons – and whatever anyone might speculate about them – it’s clear that he is a very funny guy whose success is deserved. The new documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party shows him to be humble as well. The film documents his good-natured attempt to give something back to the fans who have made him comedy’s hottest name.
The structure of the movie is simple: Chappelle returns to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to hand out “golden tickets” to complete strangers whom he hand selects. The holders of these tickets are taken by bus to Brooklyn, where they are treated to a concert featuring some of the biggest names in rap and hip-hop. Local residents, who hear about the show through word-of-mouth, are also invited to attend. The setting is a Bed-Stuy intersection, where an atmospheric, run-down old church provides the perfect backdrop. It makes the event feel like an old-school block party rather than a well-organized, glossy production.
Most of the early scenes show Chappelle humorously interacting with Ohio residents. Some know who he is; others do not. Those who do are exceptionally grateful for the golden tickets. A significant amount of screen time is given to the Central State College marching band that Chappelle happens to stumble across. By quickly pulling some strings with the school’s top brass, he gets permission for the hard-working young musicians to make the trip. The film also spends time at backstage rehearsals for the show, showing Chappelle fraternizing with the musicians. And, of course, there’s the concert itself, which features Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, and the Fugees among others.
There’s not much organization to Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. It cuts back and forth, almost randomly, to these different elements. Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) clearly chose this non-linear approach on purpose; by always shifting around, we constantly stay interested in what’s on the screen. A straight documentation of the event, from planning to execution, would have had little thrust. By jumbling things up, the film reflects the energy and atmosphere of the party itself.
Of course, how much you like this film is contingent on how much you like Dave Chappelle and hip-hop music. I was more familiar with some of the musical artists than others, but all of them give lively, upbeat performances. The featured acts prove that many hip-hoppers are actual musicians, not just people with a talent for rhyming. Mos Def, for instance, plays instruments in addition to rapping, and it’s hard to deny that Lauryn Hill has one of the most alluring voices in modern music.
There’s another side to the movie’s musical component, though. None of these artists are your stereotypical “gangstas.” All of them are socially conscious and perform music that has a strong, uplifting pro-black message. Too often, hip-hop is dismissed as being a glorification of violence and the “bitches and hoes” lifestyle. While there are many groups that unfortunately promote that stereotype, you won’t see any of them here. These artists are literate, political, and positive. They present an image – not just of “black power” but of “people power” – that represents hip-hop at its finest.
That theme of racial self-empowerment runs throughout Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. I don’t think the comedian just wanted to organize a concert. I think he wanted to encourage positivity. That’s why the marching band gets so much screen time. Here is a group of young mostly black men and women, who are devoting their energies to something positive and creative in addition to their higher education. They run counter to the negative image we often see of African-Americans in music videos and other movies. There are no gang-bangers, no pimps, no bitches or hoes here – just intelligent, talented, ambitious people on both sides of the stage. When Fugees member Wycleff Jean promotes education by telling the kids that even ghettos have libraries, it’s a powerful moment of uplift.
There are naturally some really funny moments in the film, the majority of them not printable here. Suffice it to say that Chappelle is in top improv form, tossing off masterful one-liners with incredible ease, both on the stage and on the streets. For me, the most moving of the musical performance was Kanye West performing his song “Jesus Walks” while the marching band pumps out the song’s famous bass line. Great music, lots of laughs. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an event I’m glad I attended.
( out of four)
Dave Chappelle's Block Party is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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