Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an ebullient, joyful, grooving, fun, funny, moving, ass-shaking, mood-elevating, pulse-quickening gem. It’s a movie that sends you dancing out of the theater, filled with glowing happiness and a peculiar optimism for the future of mankind. Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry have come together to make a film that gets you really, really high.
Filmed back in the fall of 2004, Block Party shows Chappelle at the height of his fame, and possibly his happiness. It’s before he had what seemed to be a nervous breakdown that caused him to abandon his TV and flee to Africa, and he’s using his popularity to create a truly positive experience – a major free concert in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. But Block Party isn’t just a document of the concert (in fact my one complaint about the movie is that it could have used more of the concert), it’s about the days leading up to the show, and about the concepts of community that inform the whole effort. That’s what makes it brilliant.
Dave Chappelle is a performer who stands in many worlds – in the film he mentions that old ladies love him. As a comedian his audience is just as likely to be made up of white people as black, and as a person he comes from a fairly rural area of Ohio. He brings these worlds together for the Block Party, even going so far as to bus people from Ohio to Brooklyn (he hands out big golden, Wonkian tickets). The community aspects looms still larger, though – the performers use a local youth center as a backstage area, and we get to meet the kids and teachers there; a weird older white couple owns the building that will be directly behind the stage, and we get to know their odd lives. In Ohio the camera tags along with Dave as he goes to the local corner store, and as he invites a college marching band down to perform.
Chappelle is hilarious, as expected, but he’s also generous – he isn’t the only funny person in the movie, and often he gets upstaged by the ordinary people around him. I can’t imagine that people don’t like Chappelle, but they probably exist somewhere. That said, I think it would be impossible to dislike him after watching this film, where he comes across as a decent guy who is genuinely excited to be a part of an event like this.
I missed the actual Block Party, which took place only blocks from my home, and the movie makes me kick myself even harder for it. Chappelle lined up a great set of performers, most with the Roots and friends acting as back-up band. Kanye West tears things up as an opener (this was a year and a half ago, after all. It’s hard to imagine West being relegated to the same spot today), and the energy seems to never let up from there. Mos Def and Talib Kweli come on with some Black Star songs (which is great for me – the Black Star album is maybe my favorite hip hop record and I keep wishing these guys would record another one); Mos is also heavily featured behind the scenes, where his wit and timing are endlessly evident. Other acts include an incendiary performance by revolutionary gangstas Dead Prez, whose It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop is one of the great anthems of 21st century political activism (it’s too bad their later albums never topped Let’s Get Free), and which Dave uses as an example of the kind of message he’s looking to send to the audience that day.
The biggest moment in the show is the reunion of the Fugees – something that has lost some meaning since the actual concert, since their reunion seems to have been short-lived – a surprise moment that galvanizes an audience who has been standing on a Brooklyn street for eight hours. One of the film’s highlights is Wyclef Jean talking to the Ohioan marching band backstage, leading them through a free-form take on If I Was President. Unfortunately too many of the acts only get one song, and sometimes even that is interrupted.
The film is filled with small, magical moments of truth and human warmth, real humor and the kind of positive attitude to which so many people give nothing but lip service. It’s easy to sometimes think that the only aspects of life worth examining in art are the heavy, serious and sad ones, and it’s all too easy to sometimes think that the only way to make a movie happy and life-affirming is to pack it with schmaltz. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is the cinematic equivalent of that first beautiful day of spring after a brutal winter, when you can take off your coat and go to the park, bob your head with the radios playing to the open, sweet-scented air and watch the pretty girls walk by.