Dave Chappelle's Block Party
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The idea for this concert film/comedy/documentary couldn't be simpler. Comedian Dave Chappelle hosts an unannounced block party in the heart of Brooklyn featuring all his favorite rap artists. The playlist includes Kanye West, Mos Def, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots, and a reunion of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and the rest of The Fugees.
Before the party really gets rolling, though, director Michel Gondry follows Chappelle around his Ohio hometown while he chats with ordinary folks on the street and hands out "golden tickets" good for a bus ride to the concert and a place to stay in NYC. One very grateful college marching band he happens upon is invited to come and play the party.
The rest of the film bounces from concert footage to segments featuring Chappelle hanging and clowning in rehearsal, onstage and with various people who occupy the block upon which the party goes down.
Block Party features more music than message, but there's definitely a loose cultural conversation going on between Chappelle, the performers, the "ordinary folks" and the camera about what it means to be black in America. Some of the points made are quite positive and profound. Others, less so.
One of Chappelle's strengths is his ability to shine a bright light on controversial racial issues with humor and without making his very diverse audience feel alienated. In spite of his often crude language and jokes, he succeeds where many fail in creating room for an honest dialogue about race and racism. For those in his wider audience less often exposed to these cultural issues, there's value to catching the sense of the warm community between the performers, as well as the range of political and emotional responses that community holds about tough racial realities. And the range is significant. On one end, the Dead Prez rap in anger and frustration about past injustice and threats of harm while playing with the idea of "runnin' up on them crackers in city hall." On the other, The Fugee's Wyclef Jean urges a group of black college students not to blame "the white man" for their problems, but to hit the books and "get yours." From a more general perspective, Mos Def raps and sings about shining your light on the world and living every day to its fullest potential.
The film captures the awkward mix of Christian spirituality, bad language and decidedly unbiblical ideas that come packaged into modern rap music. Common (who uses the f-word liberally in rap lyrics) leads a group of performers backstage in an extended prayer, thanking God and asking that He be glorified through the concert. He concludes the prayer "in the name of Jesus and our ancestors." Kanye West performs his hit "Jesus Walks," which includes both R-rated language and the chorus "God show me the way because the Devil try to break me down/The only thing I pray is that my feet don't fail me now/And I don't think there's nothing I can do to right my wrongs/I wanna talk to God but I'm afraid 'cause we ain't spoke in so long." The film closes with Cody ChesnuTT singing "Parting Ways," a song that repeatedly mentions the love of God.
A young couple in the college marching band excitedly explain that they've been involved in a Christian courtship for over a year. Then they demonstrate their chastity by not kissing.
Chappelle tells a few crude sex jokes that include harsh slang for male and female anatomy. A waiter Chappelle meets in a restaurant does an impromptu rap for the camera about being available to women to be a lover "on the side." A husband uses crude language to boast about the fact that—if drunk—his wife is prone to exposing herself.
Lyrics to a few of the songs performed mention violence, including the aforementioned Dead Prez number.
Crude or Profane Language
Chappelle and most of the performers are given to using the s-word and various forms of the f-word (often preceded by "mutha"). Both words are heard more than 25 times in conversation and lyrics, along with many uses of "a--," "b--ch" and God's name for swearing. Black performers refer to themselves and other African-Americans using the racially charged n-word at least 20 times. A couple of young guys from Chappelle's Ohio hometown describe being called the word by a white guy on a golf course, a hurtful offense they choose to overlook so as not to miss the concert in Brooklyn.
Chappelle often appears greatly amused by swearing. His film includes several moments in which people show caution or disapproval for swearing juxtaposed with Chappelle's giddy indulgence. After a man apologizes for using the word "h---" on camera, Chappelle quickly responds by saying the crudest thing he can think of to show it's OK. In another segment, an eccentric old woman states that she doesn't think kids or adults should listen to all the swearing in rap music. Cut to Chappelle onstage delivering a couple of his crudest jokes with an instruction to the kids at the concert to cover their ears.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Chappelle and others smoke cigarettes. Multiple references are made to pot and other drugs, including a hippie restaurant that is said to have put "mushrooms" in the pizza. Onstage, Chappelle (who starred in the drug-themed movie Half-Baked) claims to smell reefer and jokes about calling the cops.
Other Negative Elements
Several lyrics and comments are strongly anti-government and even anti-police.
Block Party, sure to make the rounds at teen parties for years to come, is an education in the diverse (positive and negative) sides of both Dave Chappelle and the rap culture. As a conservative, white, middle-aged evangelical Christian, I might not be the exact demographic it is intended for. Then again, maybe I'm closer to it than I realize. Season Two of Comedy Central's Chappelle Show on DVD sold more than any TV series ever, over 1.2 million copies it's first week. Obviously, Chappelle's undeniable appeal crosses a wide swath of "market segments." The guy is funny, genuine and really hard not to like. That's especially true in this film when he's mixing generously with residents in his Ohio hometown and in Brooklyn, people with whom he laughs easily and treats with copious respect.
On the other hand, Chappelle also takes great glee in pushing controversial racial and political buttons, crafting crass scatological humor and swearing like a defiant middle schooler looking for street cred.
Chappelle has taken some heat this last year for a sudden exit from Season Three of his hit show (and a $50 million contract) to take an unexplained African retreat. So all eyes are on him as Block Party marks his return to the spotlight. Filmed in a loose style by feature director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it's mostly a concert movie in which one group after another mounts the stage to perform with a rock-solid backing band. Although the meat of the performance footage launches with undeniable energy and freshness, I (not a rap fan) found my attention waning in the last 40 minutes or so. There's just no narrative to drive the movie forward. My guess is there won't be enough Chappelle for the comedy fans and that hardcore rap and soul fans might get frustrated with the way the film dips in and out of the performances.
More frustrated will be parents, teens and other music fans hoping to steer clear of some of the angry and f-bomb laden rap (and chatter) on display.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Dave Chappelle, Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots, The Fugees and Cody ChesnuTT