'Block Party': Dave Chappelle's Good Old Days

Months before he bolted from Comedy Central, the comic gives a free concert in Brooklyn.
Months before he bolted from Comedy Central, the comic gives a free concert in Brooklyn. (D. Lee)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

The Dave Chappelle we see in "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is a relaxed man in a state of hilarious playfulness. And why not? The film was shot in 2004, when he'd just signed a $50 million deal for two more seasons of his comedy series "Chappelle's Show," which was reaping record-breaking DVD sales.

Watching him on-screen, there's not even a hint of the events that would unfold eight months later: Chappelle bolted from the TV show's production, jetting to Africa and sparking wild speculation about his mental state, drugs and behind-the-scenes power struggles at Comedy Central.

Instead, we get a home-movieish documentary that follows Chappelle, from his rural retreat in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to a free concert for more than 5,000 he hosted in Brooklyn, N.Y.

And unlike his show sketches -- which feel tightly rehearsed, featuring Chappelle in roles from crackhead to stuffy "white" newscaster -- "Block Party" shows him as an easygoing man comfortable with his widespread popularity. The jagged Chappelle wit is never far away, however, as he hands out "golden tickets" (for bus and lodging) to white and black fans in Ohio and New York, inviting them to the concert.

"Old people [bleep]-ing love me, man," Chappelle quips to the camera after he has charmed his way through a swath of senior-age fans in Yellow Springs.

Chappelle has said the free concert, in the up-and-coming Fort Greene neighborhood, was meant to evoke the community spirit of Wattstax, the day-long concert held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972; the film of that concert features the comedy of a young Richard Pryor.

There is a clear festive buzz, as attendees laugh, bob and listen to Chappelle's impish, inventive comedy and to some of the best music hip-hop has to offer, from Kanye West, a reunited Fugees, Mos Def, Jill Scott and several others. The nine-hour event also included the rah-rah music of Ohio's Central State University marching band, which Chappelle bused to the event, apparently on a whim.

Filmmaker Michel Gondry, who directed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and a handful of Bjork videos, hasn't done more than trail his subject from Yellow Springs to Brooklyn. There are no penetrating interviews about Chappelle, who was raised mostly in Washington, and no scenes or moments to savor for their documentary impact. Here, the name of the game is following along. After all, Chappelle is the show. He may be one funny-looking, scrawny dude -- he could be the love child of Elmer Fudd and Grace Jones -- but he's eminently entertaining, whether he's glad-handing shopkeepers in rural Ohio or vamping it up onstage:

"Five thousand black people chillin' in the rain," he says, playing a set of congas as he surveys his audience under dark, drizzly skies. "Nineteen white people peppered into the crowd."

He strains his eyes, pretending to search for something.

"Trying to find a Mexican. Buenos dias , I know you're out there!"

If there's one thing to be learned from the life of Dave Chappelle (or at least from "Dave Chappelle"), it's that being famous can be a whole lot of fun. In satirical James Brown mode, Chappelle orders his backup band to strike a single chord in unison whenever he points at them. He makes them do it once. Wham! Then again. Wham! He makes them do it twice: Wham-wham! He tests them by pretending to address the crowd and then suddenly whipping out his arm. Wham!

There's an innocent joy here and a genial detachment, as if Chappelle's playing host to his own celebrity. He's Johnny Carsoning his fame, as it were. But there's something deeper at work, too. Even with his cutting racial satire -- and, yes, some of the profanity-laced comedy you saw on his Comedy Central show -- he seems uniquely positioned to appeal to white and black Americans. In Yellow Springs, for instance, Chappelle goes door-to-door, charming the kind of locals you might call hip-hop-challenged. They're obviously fond of their famous neighbor.

"I wouldn't know what to wear to a block party," says one white woman, a shopkeeper who's clearly tickled at Chappelle's invitation.

And when Chappelle persuades that marching band, all African American, to accompany him to Brooklyn, the thrill in their faces is its own kind of music. The show itself is a revelatory spectacle, a microcosmic gathering of contemporary black America in a Brooklyn back street. They're not just watching Chappelle, but celebrating themselves.

And Chappelle isn't playing the caustic outsider, a traditional role for all too many black comedians. He's part of the status quo and inviting everyone in.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and drug references.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company