If there's a more joyful film this summer than Dave Chappelle's Block Party, I'll eat my sunlounger. But first things first. Who is Dave Chappelle? What is a block party? And what precisely does one wear to such an event?
Chappelle is a boyish African-American stand-up comedian adored in the US but little known here. He delivers barbed jokes about race and class in an easygoing drawl; with his flat cap and pencil moustache, he has the look of a spiv. And a block party is just that - a party in the street. This documentary film begins with Chappelle deciding to throw such a bash in Brooklyn, in September 2004, with assorted hip-hop stars performing for the public. As for the dress code, anything goes. "I knew I should have bought a thong," frets one middle-aged woman.
She is one of the unlikely guests whom Chappelle busses in from his home town of Dayton, Ohio, where he is shown handing out golden tickets to people who would not normally attend a hip-hop gig, including a barber, two parole officers and the entire Central State University marching band. The camera keeps track of them and others as the party gets under way and they whoop it up. Chappelle clearly thinks they're the bee's knees. He hangs out with a woman who hopes to marry Rachmaninov in the afterlife. At another point he asks a young black child where he'd go if he could take a limousine to anywhere in the world, and looks incredulous when the boy answers: "Alabama."
Michel Gondry, the French-born director who also made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, cuts back and forth between interviews with the public, Chappelle's comic asides and the show itself. He includes just enough concert footage to satisfy music fans, but not enough to scare off those who find it hard to differentiate between hip-hop and the sound of an angry man falling down a flight of stairs.
It helps that Chappelle's aim in compiling the bill was to bring together musicians with a message. "The more you say with it, the less airplay you get," he laments about acts such as Dead Prez, who liken the White House to a crack house. Erykah Badu shows up in an afro wig the size of a small planet; when she discards it on stage, it drifts away like tumbleweed. The debonair rapper-turned-actor Mos Def is here, partly to play straight-man during Chappelle's chirpy stage routines. Kanye West performs a goose-bump-inducing version of "Jesus Walks", while Lauryn Hill, fronting the reformed Fugees, offers up a magical take on "Killing Me Softly". Even Chappelle seems awestruck in the presence of Hill, who is so cool that she can wear a baseball cap sideways without fear of being mocked by small children.
What makes Dave Chappelle's Block Party more than just a concert film is its remarkable feel for the way that people, places and politics intersect. The stage is squeezed into a cramped corner of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy), the historically beleaguered neighbourhood familiar from Spike Lee's early work and the current Chris Rock sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris. Beyond the performers, the trees, architecture and rusty fire escapes of Bed-Stuy are always in shot, preventing the film from becoming too slick or showbizzy.
The political commentary is low-frequency but consistent. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees warns the marching-band members not to blame their woes on white people, and praises the role of libraries in self-empowerment. Chairman Fred Hampton Jr, the son of a murdered Black Panther, arrives to tell the crowd: "Hands up, eyes open, fists clenched." Some might dismiss Chappelle's climactic declaration - "We shook up the world!" - as no more than hyperbole. But compared to the pompous, middle-class jamboree that was Live 8, Chappelle's shindig is the real deal. Bob Geldof should look and learn. Everyone else can just enjoy the party.
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