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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archives: "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party" (2006)

“I like things that are unpredictable. I would love for this to be something that came out of nowhere, that nobody saw coming.” That’s what comedian Dave Chappelle tells us regarding his star-studded Block Party midway through Michel Gondry’s documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” an exuberant and joyous celebration of music and comedy that has certainly fulfilled Chappelle’s wish in more ways than one. Here’s a comedian who has stirred controversy, has baffled industry insiders and who has won over critics and mainstream audiences alike, but who has yet to conform to what today’s idea of an “entertainer” should be. Thank God.

This movie indeed came out of nowhere. The only Michel Gondry movie I knew about this year was the one I saw at Sundance and won’t be out until October (so I’m told). The movie itself seems destined to foil the expectations Chappelle’s audience may have regarding a film titled "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party." This is not a movie version of Chappelle’s Show, nor is it an ego-trip by one of today’s most popular talents. This is a gift for music and hip-hop fans given to us by a guy who’s not shy about being a humbled fan himself.

Like 1973’s "Wattstax," its main inspiration, and "Festival Express" before it, "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party" is a party as well as a showcase of today’s biggest and brightest talents, here stemming from the world of hip-hop, from Kanye West to The Fuggees (with Lauryn Hill); from Erykah Badu to Mos Def; from Jill Scott to Dead Prez. Chappelle invited rappers and singers who had something more to say besides how much bling they own. These are compelling, straight-talking wordsmiths who are out to make their music matter to more than the Top 40 junkies.

The party itself was orchestrated and funded by Chappelle, who went out on the streets and handed out tickets to people, first asking them if they liked rap music. The movie shifts back and forth from the party to the setting up of the party and the rehearsals. Chappelle gives out these “golden tickets” to people he finds interesting. An elderly woman shows up simply because she likes Dave. The people who get the tickets have no idea where the party will be or who will be performing. They are only instructed to get on a bus, a promotional strategy that also works in keeping the press away.

The party ends up being in a shabby little part of Brooklyn. A good portion of the audience hail from Ohio, where Chappelle is seen inviting the entire Ohio Central State University marching band to come and perform. The movie thankfully avoids using clips of gushing fans declaring their love for Chappelle. Instead, Chappelle takes us on a tour of the neighborhood itself and lets us get to know the citizens. A couple celebrating their 46th wedding anniversary settle in one of the buildings that surround the party, a building that would be better suited for crack dealers. Chappelle also visits the elementary schools and local clothing stores.

But what is all of this really about? Much of Chappelle’s humor derives from being black or white in America. He pokes fun at both, but also takes himself down a peg when he talks about musicians wanting to be comedians and vice versa. “I’m very mediocre at both,” he says. “But have found a way to talk my way into a fortune.” Many of the entertainers booked have more than a few words to say about the disparity and urban neglect that is prevalent in American cities, but the movie itself never feels the need to lay anything on too thick. Gondry and his editors never forget why the word “Party” exists in the film’s title, but just to put everyone at ease, the movie finally depicts one of the entertainers telling some African American students not to take the easy way out and “blame the white man for anything,” but to go to a local library and read up.

The movie is also just a lot of fun, if not a bit overlong. Chappelle should be commended for hiring an eccentric like Gondry to film his labor of love and Gondry and cinematographer Ellen Kuras should be commended for depicting it in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner. It’s also a further testament to Chappelle’s modesty and refreshing down-to-earth approach to how he handles his career. Not only did he forgo a fortune by not signing a multi-million dollar deal with Comedy Central, he took the money he did have and threw a party with it. Not for himself, but for his fans and for hip-hop fans. With this occasion, Chappelle inadvertently proves he’s not just a brilliant satirist and comedian, but a guy who fearlessly practices what he preaches: Being unpredictable.

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