Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Dave Chappelle, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, and the Fugees.
In Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Chappelle himself isn’t particularly funny onstage. He gets a few belly laughs, but mostly elicits just mild chuckles. He’s clearly having so much fun that you like his performance, anyway. His sense of fun is contagious.
In 2004, Chappelle was flying high. His show was the funniest and most popular comedy show on television, and he’d just been rewarded with a $50 million contract for the next few seasons. Armed with the heaviest paycheck a black entertainer’s seen in a decade, he did just what we all would probably do—throw the best party ever. Using the Afrocentric model of the 1972 Wattstax concert and the earlier bonhomie of 1969’s Woodstock as his guides, Chappelle decided to host a free party in Brooklyn, and invite his hometown and his favorite hip-hop acts.
Maybe I enjoyed the movie so much because Chappelle’s dream hip-hop lineup is pretty damn close to my own. Sure, I might have added De La Soul, J-Live, and the reconvened Public Enemy, but the spirit—no gangstas, no Bentleys, no Lil’ Jon and his numbingly idiotic crunk—aligns with my own sensibilities. Mostly, though, I loved the movie because it’s obvious how much sheer fun everyone involved is having. It dawned on me, as Kanye West is smiling broadly and giggling as a college marching band performs his “Jesus Walks” during a practice, how rarely we’re allowed to see black people just goofing off.
The most thrilling moments of Block Party are the rehearsal sessions and backstage antics that most of the 5,000+ crowd doesn’t see. Here, Chappelle swaggers through yo-mama jokes while the house band (the Roots) plays a blue riff. Rapper/actor Mos Def plays the drums—he’s good, too—while serving as Chappelle’s straight man. I never imagined that Mos Def would do a good Ed McMahon impression, but such are the goofy surprises here. Indie soul superstar Cody ChesnuTT lays down gorgeous, quiet guitar work. Lauryn Hill, Pras, and Wyclef Jean open up about how they met, and how their band—the revered, lamented Fugees—came to be. Erykah Badu does a funny shimmy dance as she heads onstage, completely casting aside her ultra-serious soul-diva persona.
This isn’t to suggest that the performances aren’t stellar. They are. Mos Def and Talib Kweli reunite—as Black Star, the duo created a 1998 album that’s one of my favorite hip-hop releases ever—and ignite the stage with verbal gymnastics and perfectly choreographed call-and-responses. They’re having a ball, but it’s purposeful fun. Chappelle’s brand of hip-hop is progressive, politically minded, and concerned more with exploring the complexities of black life than with surface-level bling. Often, the politics don’t fit. Fred Hampton, Jr. calls onstage for the release of all political prisoners; the crowd mostly looks at him confusedly. Dead Prez basically calls for anarchy and impeachment of the President, but the beats are so vicious that I bounced in my chair more than I thought of the social implications.
Chappelle’s best when he makes his points—namely, that black life is as complicated as complicated as any other kind; that it’s hard to separate politics from everyday life, and why should we do that, anyway?—with subtlety. He’s an all-inclusive partygiver. He invites the mostly white denizens of his hometown (Dayton, Ohio) to the party, and some of them gladly go. (Watching an 80-year-old white woman throw her hands up at Kanye West might be funnier than anything Chappelle says during the movie.) The crowd is mostly black, but he’s pleased to see whites sprinkled throughout. He spreads the news via word-of-mouth—at one point, he drives through a richer part of Brooklyn, yelling through a megaphone: “Calling all Huxtables! Rudy, Vanessa, Theo! Come on out tonight for a free concert!”
Block Party, in its offhand way, aims to be the barometer for contemporary black life. Throughout, we see a broad cross-section of America, from poor blacks to buppies to hipster whites to geriatrics and beyond. The point is clear. As for as Chappelle is concerned, hip-hop is for everyone and can bring together disparate souls, He sets his concert in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the poorest and blackest sections of New York, but on a block ringed by aging white hippies and a diversified public school. The movie’s director is a white French expatriate (more on Michel Gondry in a second), and Chappelle is willing to ship anyone and everyone from Dayton (no matter what race) who honestly wants to attend.
Another reason resonates behind the use of Bed-Stuy as the concert’s setting. Bed-Stuy is the location of Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, which defined the onscreen black experience for a generation and also tried to take the temperature of contemporary American culture. And here it’s worth remembering that Block Party is a fundamentally cinematic, as well as musical, experience. Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) shoots the movie with madcap glee. His camera zooms in as it’s panning through the crowd, which makes you a little woozy. His colors bleed into each other; his lighting scheme lurches and slurs. He’s adept in framing close-ups of sweat-drenched performers, and then suddenly zooming out to reveal how the whole stage is metaphorically on fire.
Gondry’s as playful and relaxed as Chappelle. Early on, we see that marching band performing “Jesus Walks.” Gondry deftly cuts between the band’s practice session and West’s onstage performance. The 30-piece band doesn’t play during West’s actual performance, but Gondry’s edits show how well the band keeps up with the beats laid down by the Roots; after a while, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
For all the handheld trickery, Gondry is more subdued here than in his miraculously loopy videos. Things here move so quickly that he’s merely trying to keep up—there’s enough madness to keep track of, without resorting to the avant-garde. Block Party shows neither Chappelle nor Gondry at their most challenging, and that seems to be part of the point. Even at their sloppiest and most relaxed, they’re a helluva lot of fun to be around.