3½ stars (out of four)
Appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" earlier this month, comedian Dave Chappelle was supposed to tell all.
Back from rehab or a kidnapping or wherever he went last May after fleeing Comedy Central's warm, $50 million embrace, the guy had a lot of explaining to do. But instead Chappelle spoke generally of an untenable work situation and, raising the hopes of frat boys everywhere, half-heartedly-with-fingers-crossed-behind-his-back suggested that he might return to "Chappelle's Show" if--if--he is allowed to donate half of all DVD proceeds to "the people."
You get a DVD proceed! And you get a DVD proceed! And you get a DVD proceed!From pothead comic to entertainment superstar to runaway, Chappelle's latest turn as the altruistic millionaire should go a far way toward quelling all that crazy talk. And if timing is everything for comedians, it couldn't be better for "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," a feel-good concert film chronicling the comic's free, impromptu music fest, which imported hope and joy to a rundown corner of Bedford-Stuyvesant in September 2004--just eight months before Chappelle jumped ship for South Africa.
"We all have a message we want to get across," Chappelle says of his cast of hip-hop luminaries, from Kanye West and Mos Def to Dead Prez and Jill Scott. "And it's not just about making money."
No, it's about making a movie. But even this cynic can happily report that "Block Party" is an uplifting, funny and engaging star-studded affair. Modeled after "Wattstax," the 1973 documentary recounting a momentous black music festival held in the wake of the devastating Watts riots, "Block Party" is unabashedly all about community and self-reliance and the power of music. And as directed by "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's" Michel Gondry (an odd choice until you consider that Chappelle and Gondry's fans are likely one and the same), it's an intimate, loose, and wholly entertaining portrait of Chappelle and friends, highlighted by a Fugees reunion, a wig-less Erykah Badu and Chappelle's sparse and beautiful piano rendition of "'Round Midnight."
Off-stage, Gondry follows Chappelle home to Ohio, where he doles out "golden tickets," comping transport, hotel and concert entry to ecstatic passersby, shop owners and the entire Central State University marching band, flagline included.
It's not exactly classic Chappelle.
Far from life affirming, Chappelle's brand of comedy walks that fine line between subverting and exploiting racism, as in his "Chappelle's Show" spoof of "The Real World," where angry black thugs rule the Jacuzzi-happy house and torture a lone white guy named Chad, sleeping with his girlfriend and stabbing his father. See, Chappelle doesn't subvert or exploit racism. He subploits it.
But, as we know from the careers of his predecessor Lenny Bruce and contemporary Sarah Silverman, you don't get crazy rich by subploiting racism alone. With his parodies of a coked-up Rick James and sexually eccentric R. Kelly, Chappelle has captured the young, white, DVD-buying audience, something he and his "Block Party" co-stars share. As Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson says at a concert rehearsal, "Our audiences don't look like us."
Maybe that's why, when Gondry suggested Bed-Stuy as opposed to Central Park for the venue, Chappelle listened. And why, looking out at "5,000 black people chillin' in the rain" (the New York Times put the number closer to hundreds), Chappelle called the block party "the best single day of my career."
Whether you agree--and whether you'll remember the charity or the vanity a few weeks after watching his film--depends largely on how you feel about Oprah. I know I'm still thinking about the music and how, when Chappelle praises his hero Thelonious Monk for being "off time, yet perfectly on time," he could have been talking about himself.
`Dave Chappelle's Block Party'
Directed by Michel Gondry; photographed by Ellen Kuras; edited by Sarah Flack and Jeff Buchanan; production designed by Lauri Faggioni; music supervised by Corey Smyth; produced by Bob Yari, Dave Chappelle, Julie Fong and Mustafa Abuelhija. Featuring Dave Chappelle, Ahmir Thompson, Cody Chesnutt, Erykah Badu, Common, Dead Prez, The Fugees, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Jill Scott, Kayne West and the Central State University marching band. A Rogue Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (language).