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Dave Chappelle’s Block Party Review

By Shawn McKenzie 03/04/2006

In between comedian Dave Chappelle’s huge contract for $50 million to produce two more seasons of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show and his subsequent decision to bail out on the contract and go on a “spiritual retreat” in Africa, Chappelle decided to throw a block party for a neighborhood in Brooklyn and have it filmed.  Using the 1973 concert film Wattstax as a template, what resulted is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party…a movie that has some humor, but it is more about enjoying the music.

On September 18, 2004, the free Block Party took place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, at the intersection of Quincy and Downing Streets.  Three days earlier, Chappelle went to Dayton, Ohio, which is close to his hometown of Yellow Springs, to invite locals to his unadvertised party at a secret location.  He went to the shop where he used to buy his smokes to invite the old white ladies who own it to a rap concert.  He also went to a place called Ha Ha Pizza, owned by hippies, to invite them.  Additionally, he calls himself “Wee Willy Wonka” by passing out Golden Tickets to the Block Party to passersby on the street.  Everyone who got a ticket was also given bus tickets to the event and lodging while they stayed in the Big Apple.  On a whim, he invites the marching band from Central State University to come to the event and perform onstage.  Chappelle and director Michel Gondry had to convince Brian Milsapp, the head of the marching band, to cancel their previous plans, and the band was overjoyed (many of the members had never been to New York before.)  Back in New York, concertgoers had to register on-line, and then were told to meet at a secret location in the Chinatown section of Manhattan.  They were bussed to the equally secret location where the concert was to be held, and they weren’t told which acts would be performing.  Chappelle, of course, hosted the event, and he tells jokes in between the sets.  Speaking of the acts, they included several alternative hip hop and neo-soul acts, such as Kanye West (who performs “Jesus Walks” with the CSU marching band), Mos Def, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Cody ChesnuTT, Common, Freeway, Big Daddy Kane, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Kool G. Rap, Jill Scott, and The Fugees (with Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras.)  The last act was the biggest surprise, since it was their first time appearing together onstage in over seven years.  According to Chappelle, Columbia Records refused to release Hill’s songs for use in the production of this movie, so she decided reunite The Fugees instead, in what Chappelle calls “a miracle.”  The Roots also performed, with drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson acting as the leader of the concert’s house band.  While some acts…such as West, who has gone onto huge fame, and Def, who has found success as an actor…both rappers were relatively unknown in 2004.

Other highlights of the movie involved Chappelle and some of the acts that performed.  Chappelle tells people that all comedians really want to be musicians (according to him, he only knows two songs…Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”…the latter of which he performs onstage) and that all musicians want to be funny…and that he is mediocre at both.  He challenges an audience member named Darren “Mr. T” Hymes (named so because he is sporting a Mohawk) to a freestyle rap contest (Chappelle jokes about Hymes’ “Free Tibet” T-shirt, exclaiming that there are no black people in Tibet.)  He also does a parody of James Brown’s “band hit” shtick with Mos Def as his straight man on drums.  Other than the concert and backstage footage, he also runs into people from Ohio and Brooklyn who are attending and/or helping out with the concert.  These parts are a little bit of a buzzkill in between the music and comedy, because they are serious or just touching.  Chappelle interviews a couple of kids who experienced racism; a rapper friend and protégé of the Notorious B.I.G. named Lil’ Cease, who theorizes over who killed the slain rapper in 1997; and Luz Grice, the head of the PAL Daycare Center, who allowed the crew to film the event on their roof.  These things are in the spirit of Wattstax though.

In fact, there are several similarities between the two films (something that Chappelle doesn’t deny…right down to the artwork for the movie poster.)  Both films included mainly African-American acts (Wattstax included Stax artists, like The Staples Singers, Eddie Floyd, Carla and Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes), with a comedian as an MC (in Wattstax it was the late Richard Pryor.)  Both movies included social commentaries from concertgoers and musicians.  The filmmakers who directed both movies had previously found success in surreal masterpieces (Wattstax’s director Mel Stuart made 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory…which is why Chappelle included the Golden Ticket bit; Gondry made 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

Gondry was an odd choice helm Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, but Chappelle really wanted to pay tribute to the landmark 1973 concert film, and he wanted to hold a concert featuring the music of artists that he personally enjoyed.  After all, he could do practically anything he wanted to at the time, because he was “rich b***h!”  If you are expecting the huge laughs that you may experience watching any episode of “Chappelle’s Show,” you may be a little disappointed, because there is little to no skits in it.  If you are a fan of the music in the movie (I count myself as a fan…in fact, I’m listening to The Fugees repertoire as I write this review), you will love the good-time music in it.  It almost feels like you are at the Block Party yourself…and you might find yourself saying “Yeah!,” “WHAT?!,” and “O-kay!”

Get the soundtrack featuring songs by Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and more:

Get the 30th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of Wattstax, the 1973 documentary that this movie was inspired by:

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