Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

©2006 Rogue Pictures
Dave Chappelle in Rogue Pictures’ “Block Party.”

The cranking of an alternator as a car engine’s turning over, failing to start. A man checks the engine to see if he can get the car going. It doesn’t seem at all like the beginning of a Dave Chappelle movie, does it? That’s what I thought. Chappelle shows up, lightly amused by the situation but respectful enough not to ridicule the unwitting subjects of the opening of this documentary. And a documentary it is, in the truest sense of the word.

I didn’t do any research prior to seeing the film, so I had no idea what it was going to be about. I wasn’t sure to expect, because Chappelle isn’t a conventional entertainer prone to predictable routines — evidenced by his sudden disappearance from Comedy Central after landing an unprecedented, perhaps daunting, $50 million contract. He resurfaced in South Africa, apparently on sabbatical, trying to get his “head straight.” I don’t blame him. What would you do if you weren’t sure you were the funniest man in the universe, but someone handed you an enormous sum of money? I’d immediately be scanning the room for the hit men waiting to whack me should I fail to meet the expectations of my entertainment industry loan sha—er, financiers.

There has been a trend in Hollywood lately o market black entertainers in a way that envelops them in product placement, walking advertisements for not just shoes, watches, cars and brands of champagne, but also of a phony lifestyle that studio executives peddle as a “culture.” Hip-hop is a culture that arose from the streets. “Ghetto fabulous” and “gangsta” (as we know it today) are complete fabrications that were picked up by A&R executives and svengalis who have become filthy rich by defrauding and exploiting stereotypes of the black comnunity. So, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see a motion picture studio thrust Chappelle toward doing some overhyped comedy tour in the gaudy style of “Kings of Comedy” — except, as already mentioned, Chappelle isn’t one to kowtow so easily.

The film, partly inspired by “Wattstax,” documents several days in the course of an event staged by Chappelle — a concert, no, a sort of live variety show held in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (aka “Bed-Stuy”) neighborhood. Chappelle, being from Ohio, makes a trip to his hometown to invite as eclectic a mix as you could imagine. Young, old, white or black, Chappelle recruits all types to travel by bus with a total of twelve “Golden Tickets” (a-la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) to the show in Brooklyn three days later. He dips into a convenience store and asks a middle-aged white woman if she’s ever seen a rap concert. A few minutes later, at her house, she’s wondering what she should wear to the concert.

Walking down the street, Chappelle observes, “Old people fuckin’ love me.” His tone isn’t one of arrogance. In fact, he seems amused and puzzled by the magnitude and peculiarity of his broad appeal. The subject of his fame is something that causes him consternation and fear, as demonstrated in numerous interviews where he appears dazed by the sudden explosion of popularity — in way over his head.

At the same time, Chappelle has fun with the opportunity: Popping into a local clothier and trying on a variety of cheap suits, comically imagining himself as a pimp; paying a visit to Ha Ha’s Pizza which, he tells us, got its name from the hippies who opened the place decades ago, as a reference to the side effects produced by the “special ingredients” occasionally added to the food. We’re also introduced to “the first black guy named Milsap,” Central State University’s band director. To their elation, Chappelle invites them to perform at the Brooklyn block party. “You know how Steven Spielberg got all them trucks and stuff? We came in a minivan,” he quips to the band about the budgetary constrains of the production, explaining that they’ll have to be bused to their destination.

The film plays very much like Madonna’s 1992 documentary, “Truth or Dare,” in which the concert performances are merely transitions between the central, more intuitive and honest focus of the backstage goings-on. Chappelle’s selection of performers demonstrates eclectic tastes. Yes, most of the musicians and other performers are black, but their styles vary dramatically: From the effrontery of Kanye West to the “unsafe for radio” political discourse of Dead Prez and Fugees, to the poetic and powerful vocal stylings of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, whose method is reminiscent of—incidentally—the poet-activist Gil Scott Heron whose 1971 song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a spoken-word polemic set to a jazz-funk beat, is arguably the progenitor of modern hip-hop.

There is a reason Dave Chappelle is the most successful comedian in the business. The film reveals the answer in candid moments before and between the rehearsed concert pieces in the same fashion, as Werner Herzog noted, as Timothy Treadwell’s raw footage used in “Grizzly Man.” Chappelle’s gift is his perceptiveness. He genuinely observes and listens to, rather than patronizes, people. A great comedian is one to whose jokes everyone can relate — requiring both elements of truth and irony. Because Chappelle’s really digging into who people are, and what interests them beyond simply what they do for a living, he has the capacity to adeptly grasp such perennial wellsprings of humor as class conflict to a degree unparalleled by modern entertainers whose routines are merely limited to the topical and superficial. This places his deadpan wit in a class of comic experts ranging from Lenny Bruce to, dare I say it, William Shakespeare. Yes, Shakespeare is most remembered for his tragedies and his unequalled command of the language. However, I think the old bard’s greatest works are his comedies dealing primarily with the subject of class conflict. Unlike those heady tragedies, Shakespeare’s comedies raise sociopolitical questions as relevant today as they were in his time. Comedy has long since remained a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary through satire.

Enter director Michel Gondry, whose “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” shatters my Theory of Music Video Directors. Usually, music video directors go on to become relatively mediocre film makers. They tend to regurgitate music video clichés so consistently it makes you wonder if you’re watching a two-hour extended edition of a Trent Reznor video (see Tarsem Singh’s “The Cell”). Though Gondry defies conventional scene composition and blocking, he has that ability like Fellini to make it appear as though his setups are loose and improvised. Those schooled in the cinematic arts know, however, just how difficult that is and how much preparation it requires, as well as the mastery of one’s sense of space and timing. How appropriate it is, then, that one of the only two songs Chappelle knows how to play is Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” Regarding timing, Chappelle has this sardonic observation to offer on the relationship between music and comedy, “I’m mediocre at both but have managed to talk my way into a fortune.”

And a well-deserved one at that, Dave…

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 103 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for language. • Distributed by Rogue Pictures

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