BY KHALILAH WALTERS
Filmed just before – and debuting two years after – Dave Chappelle’s very public abandonment of his eponymous hit series on Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is part documentary, part stand up comedy act, and part hip hop concert. The film chronicles Chappelle’s efforts to organize the largest block party Brooklyn had ever seen, and follows Chappelle as he wanders the streets of his Ohio neighborhood with visionary zeal, at times hoping to persuade the unlikeliest of hip hop fans to attend the Brooklyn block party a world away from the Ohio neighborhood he calls home. Dave brings all of the lucky winners of the golden tickets to the show, including Ohio Central State University’s marching band, to New York in two tour buses.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry and features cinematographer Ellen Kuras of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. New sketch comedy from Chappelle is intercut with footage of backstage commentary and preparations leading up to the big day, along with Chappelle’s ad hoc ruminations on comedians and comedic timing. But all of this is not presented chronologically; footage cuts back and forth between performances and commentary, backstage preparation and on-the-street interviews with a seamless spontaneity that adds to the unscripted feel of the documentary. It is often unclear whether Chappelle’s comedy is pre-written or off the cuff.
The roster of performers at the party in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn includes Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, The Fugees (reunited for the first time since 1997), Big Daddy Kane, Talib Kweli, Cody Chestnut, Kanye West, and John Legend. The band providing an old school funk and blues backing to the musical acts is great accompaniment, infusing the performances with a vitality the enthusiastic audience appreciates, and recalling the roots of much of the musical genres termed “neo-soul” and “alternative hip hop.” Kanye West, backed by the Ohio Central State University Marching Band, delivers a stirring rendition of “Jesus Walks.” The concert culminates in a performance by The Fugees that has all the makings of a headlining moment. The infectious energy and exhilarating momentum of the event makes it appreciable by those who are not even fans of hip hop. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is also skillfully edited, with a perfect synergy of music and moment, which is to be expected from Gondry, who has directed music videos for acts such as The White Stripes, Björk, Beastie Boys, Kanye West, and Beck.
But the Bed-Stuy concert is only part of what makes Dave Chappelle’s Block Party a fun film to watch. The memorable characters Chappelle encounters in Ohio and Bed-Stuy are a lesson in the maxim that truth can be stranger than fiction: the elderly Bed-Stuy hippie couple, owners of a dilapidated joint that Chappelle finds perfect as a crack house, are unintentionally comic. Two youths on their way to play golf abstain from administering a beat-down on someone accosting them with racial epithets because of Chappelle’s offer.
Ultimately, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a fun and human film with folksy charm and wisdom dispensed by laymen and performers complete with pontifications on the irrelevance of “the man” and the virtues of hard work and determination. But this comes with a caveat that those familiar with Chappelle’s type of humor would have to expect. The film can be confrontational; especially where the politics of a few performers are concerned, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is provocative and controversial. As Chappelle points out, you will not hear Dead Prez’s “Turn off the Radio” on the airwaves anytime soon. Otherwise it would be a flat, feel-good but decidedly less compelling documentary.
Perhaps surprisingly, though the title and concept of the film would suggest that Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a self-indulgent, egoistic romp for the comedian, the documentary manages to be a film that is about much more than Chappelle. The musical performances, not Chappelle’s comedy sketches, are the standouts in the film. The struggle for survival and the redemptive power of community in arguably the most cynical of circumstances – the section of Brooklyn playing host to the party has seen some rough times – is a theme finely woven through performances and commentary. In showcasing the artists he chose, Chappelle gives us a glimpse into what makes him tick and provides the background of his comedy, and perhaps some clues as to why he abandoned “Chappelle’s Show.”