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March 7, 2006

New Chappelle doc shows Davey from the Block

Even with two jokes about an industrious prostitute and a man with an incredibly short penis, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is surprisingly short on the one-liners. What it has in spades is a completely unexpected sentimentality. With direction by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Michel Gondry, it just may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year.

Gondry does an excellent job contrasting Chappelle’s man-on-the-street interviews with scenes from the actual block party, which took place on September 18, 2004. Chappelle’s all-star lineup includes Kanye West, who delivers an electrifying rendition of “Jesus Walks,” and Erykah Badu, who chucks caution—and her wig—to the wind when a strong gust threatens to ruin her fake ’fro.

But the most moving performance belongs to Wyclef Jean, who treats members of Ohio’s Central State University marching band to a low-key version of “If I Was President.” “It’s good to see all these young black kids in college,” he announces, before informing them that they alone are responsible for their own destinies. “Don’t blame the white man for anything. There’s libraries in the ghetto.”

Pretty heady stuff for a documentary about a comedian who’s best known for his misogynistic caricature of Rick James. That’s the surprise and delight of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And it’s not bad watching the reunited Fugees perform, either.

Above all, the comedian knows how to work a crowd, and in this concert film—reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 The Last Waltz—that includes the movie-goers. One of the biggest laughs comes from an informal interview between Chappelle and a fan, in which the fan apologizes for the use of profanity in front of the camera crew. In response, Chappelle lobs a much stronger obscenity at the screen—seemingly at the audience itself. “See? This is a movie. You can say whatever you want!” Chappelle declares. After his battles with the censors at Comedy Central, that must be a liberating statement indeed. And unlike certain other products of that cable channel—South Park comes to mind—Chappelle never resorts to the lazy comedian’s crutch of obscenity for obscenity’s sake.

Block Party takes a long time to get going, though, and for a while, I wondered how lyrics like “all the girls pass the weed to the motherfucking man” were supposed to inspire anyone. But Chappelle chooses his musical acts wisely, mixing the profane with the overtly political (Dead Prez) and the spiritual (Jill Scott). Scott’s performance was a little lackluster, as she sang about the minutiae of her day, but I appreciated the multiplicity of voices.

A good portion of the film takes place in Chappelle’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Chappelle can’t resist a few good-natured jabs at the townsfolk—he likens a particularly eccentric couple’s home to a crack house—but he is surprisingly humble around them. No show-business swagger here. The poster doesn’t lie when it bills “some folks from Ohio” second after Chappelle.

Gondry wisely eschews documentary tropes such as intertitles and voice-over narration, letting Chappelle provide the facts whenever necessary. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Block Party is a documentary—the action unfolds so organically, it seems as if the concert is taking place in real time, and I can think of no higher praise.

Block Party wisely plays its trump card within the last 15 minutes. The reunion of the Fugees—who haven’t performed together since 1997—is worth the price of admission alone. But Block Party takes it one step further, as Lauryn Hill reminisces about meeting fellow Fugees Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel “Pras” Michel in a segment that plays like a Behind the Music outtake, only interesting. She even admits that she grew up in the suburbs, which seems daring after so many artists have shared their rags-to-riches stories.

Talented comedians like Margaret Cho release concert films roughly once a year but do nothing new with the format. By organizing the documentary around Chappelle’s block party, Gondry breathes new life into the tired genre of “stand-up movie” and shows a side of the comedian that a casual fan like me would never have realized. Block Party is a film by the edgiest comedian around that you could enjoy with your grandmother. Provided she’s OK with a few jokes about prostitutes and incredibly short penises.