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March 2005

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

By Kam Williams

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

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Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriter: Dave Chappelle
Cast: Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Pras, Dead Prez, Kanye West, James "Kamal" Gray, Fred Hampton Jr. Leonard Hubbard, Wyclef Jean, Big Daddy Kane, Common
Running Time: 100 minutes

   



 

 

    Conscious-Raising Concert Flick Combines Comedy and Hip-Hop

Last Spring, after signing a $60 million contract with Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle walked off the set ostensibly over creative differences, and disappeared into thin air at the height of his fame. Since his show was the #1 series at the Network, it stands to reason that his legions of fans must be starving for more of his outrageous, color-conscious skits.

However, anyone banking on that trademark brand of humor is likely to be a bit disappointed by Dave Chappelle's Block Party, for this concert flick's strength lies in its inspired musical performances by a host of hip-hop artists who are not at all shy about sharing their sharp-edged political perspective. Shot in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the corner of Quincy and Downing Streets on an overcast day in September of 2004, the film features such rabble-rousing rappers as Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Cody Chestnutt, John Legend and The Fugees, who reunited just for the affair.

Although the weather wouldn't cooperate, rain did nothing to douse the fire of these passionate troubadours whose incendiary messages ranged from "F*ck the police!" to "I'm up for shooting some crackers at City Hall," to lyrics which suggested assassinating the President on Saturday and burying him on Sunday. Sporting t-shirts (Che Guevara) and buttons (Black Panthers) advancing equally-progressive causes, some spoke earnestly during interludes about their heartfelt concerns for the planet.

For instance, Mos Def, introduced Fred Hampton, Jr., the son of the late Panther leader who was shot in his sleep by the cowardly Chicago Police over 30 years ago. Exhorting the crowd to put their fists in the air while chanting "Free all political prisoners!" the movie often seemed more like a demonstration straight out of the Sixties than what one would expect of a rap concert.

This is a far cry from the gangsta' fare one finds in heavy rotation on MTV and BET. For, I didn't notice even one refrain referring to women disparagingly, or bragging about bling, genital endowment, or encouraging black-on-black crime. As Dave explains after the opening credits, he picked "performers who have a message that's more than making money."

What is utterly bizarre, as a consequence, is the stark contrast between their dignified style and Chappelle's chosen low-brow approach, since he repeatedly trades in the F-word, the B-word and the N-word. The question is whether his attention-grabbing punchlines lines like, "F*ck you bitch!" "Where's the money, ho?" and "P*ssy ho!" will make more of a lasting mark with the audience than the relatively dignified ideas espoused by the others.

To me, Dave's jokes were pretty lame. Here's a couple to give you a good idea what to expect. "Your mother has three ti*ties, one for milk, one for water, the other one's out of order." Or, "How many white folks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, because they'll get a n*gger to do it for 'em." And then there was one about the "industrious prostitute who had another vagina surgically implanted on her hip so she could make some money on the side?"

At a moment of honest reflection, Chappelle curiously admits to seeing

himself as mediocre, and his material here sure seems to confirm that. During the first five or ten minutes of the movie Dave is giving free reign to roam the streets with a megaphone in his hand, but nothing funny enough ever happened to elicit a laugh out of anybody at my screening.

Fortunately, Dave's dumb antics are easily overshadowed by the other performers, particularly Mos, Erykah, Kanye, and of course, The Fugees, reunited to deliver a most-moving rendition of Killing Me Softly. After watching Block Party, it is easy to understand how Chappelle might have withdrawn into his shell, a tortured soul, torn between the material that made him a mega star and a desire to deliver a message of lasting value with substance.

The world will be waiting for the answer when he finally returns to TV.

Excellent (4 stars)