Pondering a Dave Chappelle film directed by Michel Gondry conjures up some bizarre cinematic prospects—dancing mandalas of belligerent black George Bushes, perhaps, or Rick James (bitch!) swirling through space-time wormholes—but Half Baked fans be forewarned: The resolutely grounded Dave Chappelle’s Block Party offers no such otherworldly fantasies. A street-level document of a free all-star music concert thrown by the comedian in Bed-Stuy in September 2004, Block Party is all about the pleasures to be found in the very real world, albeit one enhanced by celebrity largesse. Which is to say, this picture remains faithful to the underlying affability of both Chappelle and Gondry, orchestrating a feel-good homestyle vibe that, while peppered with moments of sly political commentary, never harshes its own, slightly bittersweet mellow.
In time-honored concert-film structure, the backstage serves not just as backstory, but a purported inside track to the performers’ just-like-us humanity—a convention cemented as early as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. This careful conveyance of realness continues in Block Party, now informed by the gimmicky logic of talk shows and reality TV. The film opens in Dayton, three days before the concert, where erstwhile resident Chappelle distributes golden block-party tickets to surprised Ohioans: the clerk at his grocery store, a local barber, and various folks on the city’s downtown sidewalks. The mostly black Central State University Marching Band erupts in cheers when granted their invite to New York; a middle-aged white lady wonders if she should buy a thong for the event. The stunt is as old as Ed McMahon, but Chappelle’s conversational ease makes his stint as “wee Willy Wonka” pleasantly unhokey. It also showcases his talents as unifier: After all, he’s just about the only comedian who could yell “pussy hole” in public—as he does just to show one Daytonite that it’s OK to swear in a movie—and still garner Midwestern grandmas as fans. The rural locale isn’t let off the hook as mere idyllic counterpoint to gritty New York. Two clean-cut lads tell how one got tossed the N-word on the golf course from an angry white male; astonished, they do nothing, not wanting anything to interfere with their getting on the bus to Bed-Stuy for Dave’s party.
The event itself—evidently planned from concept to execution as much for Ellen Kuras’s artful camerawork as the neighborhood folks—takes place on an unassuming stretch of Brooklyn street that includes a day care center once attended by Biggie Smalls. The show provides a locals-heavy lineup handpicked by Chappelle (many alums of his TV show), among them Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and a reunited Fugees. Erykah Badu appears in a vast Afro cloud that would put Angela Davis to shame. Surprises include not just Big Daddy Kane but Black Panther legacy Fred Hampton Jr., who entreats the crowd to raise their hands in the air for more than just the music. So while the mostly black and Latino Brooklyn audience may be demographically pre-planned, it is also an act of momentary utopia; as Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots remarks to Chappelle backstage, both performers share the frequent experience of playing to audiences that don’t look like them. Unfiltered observations like these give a critical edge to what otherwise would simply be a well-crafted concert doc shot during one gently sundowning autumn day.