"Block Party": More commentary than comedy

March 8, 2006, midnight | By Kiran Bhat | 16 years, 2 months ago

What are Dave Chappelle's views on race relations, really? Apparently, he doesn't even know himself. Or at least that's the message that comes across in the latest work released by the enormously popular comic, "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."

First things first: Casual fans of "Chappelle's Show" needn't pay ten dollars to see this film about the enormous Brooklyn block party Chappelle organized in 2004, right before he hopped on a plane to South Africa to go on a "spiritual journey."

"Block Party" is a documentary and a comedy, in that order. It features more music and speeches than jokes — and has only a few subtle references to the career-making "I'm Rick James" skit heard in Blair's hallways everyday.

Right off the bat, the movie tries to demonstrate Chappelle's true and deep love for his people. When a cash-strapped, predominantly black marching band from Ohio's Central State University realizes that Chappelle has offered them their first trip to New York City, all-expenses-paid, to perform in and watch his show, he is genuinely as joyful as they are.

But the film's most conspicuous feature is a running social commentary on what ails Black America. Various black musicians, social icons and Chappelle himself act as the mouthpieces.

Between cuts of the awe-inspiring rap duo Dead Prez riling up a crowd of 5,000 on a Brooklyn street, Chappelle laments the fact that the establishment holds them down because of lyrics like "Uncle Sam is the pusha man," and "The white house is the rock house." Likewise, in one scene the son of a slain Black Panther, Fred Thompson Jr., takes the stage, raises his clenched fist to symbolize black unity against white oppression and successfully exhorts the crowd to follow.

Yet towards the end of the film, rapper Wyclef Jean tells the youth of the marching band just the opposite — that they cannot blame whites for their problems and that they must pick themselves up by the bootstraps and make it on their own.

Juxtapositions such as these offer viewers a rare glimpse into Chappelle's conflicted mindset about his success and the pressure it has put on him to represent his race. "Block Party" can be viewed as a prelude to the South Africa meltdown — all of the pressure Chappelle felt over his fame and riches, as well as his guilt over playing the race card repeatedly in his comedy, implicitly surface throughout the film.

The fact that the film is a social commentary doesn't mean that it is entirely unfunny. There are moments when Chappelle's irreverent brand of humor shines. Take the scene in which Chappelle asks a middle-aged white lady from small-town Ohio to come to the party in one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods. When she wonders aloud, "Should I have bought a thong?" the whole audience erupted in laughter.

But where "Block Party" really excels is in the music department. Only a star of Chappelle's magnitude could have united a list of hip-hop luminaries to perform a free concert in Brooklyn on a rainy afternoon. Featured performers included Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots, Common, Kanye West and John Legend. Most impressively, Chappelle was able to reunite The Fugees, one of the greatest rap groups of all-time who had a bitter split almost a decade before the concert. Clips of the musical performances were, in a word, spectacular.

In the end, "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is more of a character study into the ideology and mindset of one man, mixed with amazing music, than it is a comedy. The documentary explores Chappelle's often conflicted opinions on race and success.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends entirely on the viewer. Those interested in Chappelle the man, or in the social condition of Black America, are in for a treat. But those looking for Chappelle the comedian are better served watching "Chappelle's Show" reruns on Comedy Central.

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (100 minutes in area theatres) is rated R for language.

Kiran Bhat. Kiran Bhat is a senior who loves the Washington Redskins, 24, Coldplay, Kanye West, Damien Rice, Outkast and Common (Sense). He aspires to be the next Sanjay Gupta. He will miraculously grow a Guptaesque telegenic face and sculpted body by the age of 30. In … More »

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