By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
On a September day in 2004, residents from neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Dayton, Ohio, experienced “the greatest single day” of comedian Dave Chappelle’s career.
Using his celebrity connections with major rap, hip hop and soul artists, Chappelle gathered his performer friends together to treat a corner of Brooklyn to its own block party, documented in the appropriately named “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” – a testament to the power of music and, as cliche as it is, the American dream.
The documentary/concert film begins with a scene of a Brooklyn bystander whose car won’t start. Chappelle has been roaming the streets the day before the concert with a bullhorn announcing the party, and he and his crew film the interaction of the bystander and another man trying to help him start his car.
Next, we travel back two days to Chappelle’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, where he, again, roams the streets, announcing his concert and passing out golden tickets for random residents to travel by bus to Brooklyn for the free show. All types of people agree to come, from young black kids who worship Chappelle because of his Comedy Central show, or older white grandmothers who see him around town and just think he’s funny.
It’s after seeing the sequences in Dayton that the opening car repair scene makes sense. Chappelle is trying to show real people in real settings, ultimately bringing them all together for a concert, transcending the boundaries of race or social class for the sake of entertainment.
That summary may be slightly bloated. Chappelle’s intentions aren’t to change the world, just to deliver a great night of music to a variety of people. Still, through his endeavors, he manages to deliver an entertaining glimpse into the lives of the artists performing and those lucky enough to come along for the ride.
The highlights of the show come from Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, John Legend, Erykah Baduh, Jill Scott and, reunited for the first time in seven years, the Fugees. Even if you’re not into rap or hip hop, watching the performances intertwined with backstage encounters and Chappelle’s comedy is sure to have you smiling and wishing you had been there.
A highlight of the film comes from the marching band at Ohio Central State University, a group that’s invited by Chappelle to join the caravan of charter buses from Ohio to New York to open the party. The students are star-struck and are thrilled to perform “Jesus Walks” alongside Kanye West, and to talk with Wyclef Jean of the Fugees about their futures.
Jean talks with the students, all of whom are black, about how lucky they are to have the opportunity to have an education and that they shouldn’t blame society or any other race for problems in their life. They have a say in their future, and they should make it the best they can. All are wide-eyed and encouraged, having heard what really is the heart of the film: taking advantage of opportunities and following your dreams.
The neighborhood Chappelle selects for the block party is an area of Brooklyn where several famous rappers were raised, from Jay-Z to Mos Def to Biggie Smalls. The artists were fortunate enough to strike it big, becoming successful in their fields but not forgetting their roots. Informal interviews with the stars are interspersed throughout, providing a glimpse into who they are, where they came from and the struggles it took to achieve success.
“Block Party” wouldn’t be a Chappelle production if it didn’t contain the comedian’s biting wit, killer timing and jokes about sensitive subjects, such as racism and the barrier between social classes. He comments about the disparity between certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn, how one street looks like “The Cosby Show” coming back from a commercial break, while a street next to it looks more like “Good Times.” But, the jabs aren’t bitter or in bad taste, though, just honest.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is a great return for the comedian, who left his cable show and a $50 million contract in 2004 to visit Africa and clear his head. The talent of Chappelle and all the artists is undeniable, and music fans shouldn’t be disappointed. We can only hope that Chappelle decides to return to the mainstream in some way or another, continuing to push the envelope but, most importantly, entertain us.