Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)Rated R for language.
Featuring Dave Chappelle, Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, The Fugees, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©Rogue Pictures. All rights reserved.
Humble and Humorous Celebration
Dave Chappelle could be in the record books as the fastest accumulator of notoriety. Even if you were on the fringes of keeping up with current entertainment, you might've heard of the comedian's television program, the very simply titled Chappelle's Show, a collection of sketches which began in 2003 and has had his audiences roaring with laughter since. You may have heard from friends about his topical, risque humor, so daring and fresh in a world antsy under the shadows of lurking censorship and concerns of propriety. And you may have read in the news about Chappelle's surprising volatility when, last year, before his show's third season would air, the man took an unannounced trip to South Africa, seemingly leaving his career behind just after sealing a multimillion dollar contract for more seasons.
Since that incident, Chappelle has returned to the states but has been relatively quiet about his future. Dave Chappelle's Block Party arrives just in time for his public rehabilitation. A documentary about an impromptu outdoor rap concert in Brooklyn, New York organized by Chappelle, the film has the pleasantly unexpected result of showcasing him at his most humane and relatable. The picture we see is of a humble, generous soul, down-to-earth and about as unlike a figure of fame as possible. And the best part is that the humor is still intact, raucous, natural and hilarious.
This took place in September 2004, after his show's second season had aired, when he was at the height of his popularity. The idea of a concert and a movie (directed by music video veteran Michel Gondry) looks to have been a spontaneous one. Chappelle funded the event and personally requested the artists -- including Kanye West, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and, perhaps most anticipated, a reunion of The Fugees -- because they are his own favorites. The concert was announced only via the internet and admission was free. Meanwhle, days before the concert, Chappelle returned to his hometown in Ohio to give away tickets to the people of his neighborhood; while there, he even booked the entire marching band of Central State University to perform during a part of the show.
For the first part of the movie, Gondry captures Chappelle at his most affable as he talks to the people in town, both in Ohio and in Brooklyn at the site of the concert. This is a man who is fighting a duel with fame and all the burdens of celebrity. The artists he recruits all seem to share his philosophies -- the scenes of their rehearsals and of their interactions backstage are loose and intimate, as if all ego had been banished from the venue. Chappelle's racy humor exposes itself in potent, gutbusting bursts throughout the proceedings, and overall it complements the portrait of a person who naturally knows how to foster and navigate an inclusive community.
Then, as the concert gets underway, Chappelle steps aside to have attention focus on the music and the audience. Gondry, a director known for his extremely creative visual inventiveness, follows suit -- he and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras record the action with a handheld but otherwise just get out of the way. Their footage shows the closeness of the people involved and the raw energy of the music performed. Even as the rain arrived to possibly interfere with the good times, the aura of the movie retains a warmth throughout.
In a way, Block Party's arrival in the theaters at this time serves as a bookend to a tumultuous period of time. After the concert's actual late 2004 date, not only would Chappelle have his personal crisis but Hurricane Katrina would ravage urban communities populated by the kind of working class citizens who were represented by the show's audience (Kanye West would have his own notorious moment regarding the situation by uttering just six little words). The events of 2005 created a collective crisis of the people's spirit, one which was reportedly responded to in a positive way not by the government or the authorities but by communal help among the nation's grass roots. As the healing continues, these are the people we see celebrating and celebrated, humorously, musically, and sincerely, in Dave Chappelle's Block Party -- for as long as life comes at us, the celebrations will not be cancelled.
©Jeffrey Chen, Feb. 23, 2006