Dave Chappelle became a cultural icon through provocative skits on his hit Comedy Central program Chappelle's Show about oblivious crackheads, black white supremacists, and Rick James. But my favorite moment on the show was when Chappelle drove around a New York neighborhood with rapper Mos Def riding shotgun. Mos Def slipped in a CD with an instrumental track ("Close Edge," later to be released on Def's album The New Danger) and rapped over it as Chappelle -- nodding his head in appreciation and gracing the screen with a slight smile that balanced pride and joy -- manned the wheel.
That side of Chappelle's personality -- both the gentle soul so interested in and appreciative of other people and the cultural ringleader unconcerned about pleasing his mass white audience -- is more prominent than "Dave Chappelle: Funny Man" in Block Party, where even the copious laughs are relaxed and friendly and where Chappelle himself takes a back seat to a family of artists he loves and respects. And though it was filmed months before Chappelle's infamous April 2005 "meltdown," when he walked off the set of his show's third season for an impromptu African sabbatical, one suspects the movie showcases a Chappelle more likely to resemble his public persona going forward.
Directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Block Party is a document of an all-day concert -- "the concert I've always wanted to see" -- Chappelle organized at a Brooklyn intersection on September 18, 2004, and is something like a mash-up of WattStax, The Last Waltz, and a Richard Pryor concert movie.
With rare exceptions (Kanye West), the music Chappelle celebrates here is less popular than he is. The "house band" is the Roots, a hip-hop band from Philadelphia. Rappers Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common are constants. Guest performers include West, neo-soul singers Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, a reformed Fugees, and incendiary rap duo Dead Prez (who get more attention here than ever before or ever will again and deserve every bit of it). This is a strand of bohemian hip-hop and R&B -- generally too successful to be saddled with descriptives like "indie" or "underground" but unlikely to get heavy rotation on most commercial "urban" stations -- that provides a conscious, earthy alternative to the desperate flash of most current mainstream rap or R&B music. It's also music less likely to provoke identification or comic delight from an average Chappelle's Show viewer than, say, Rick James or Lil' Jon.
And yet despite ostensibly being a paean to a very specific musical culture, Block Party doesn't feel at all insular. Partly this is a testament to the musical scene in question, which is far more level-headed and open than most. But mostly it's a testament to Chappelle, who begins the movie three days earlier in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, with a handful of "golden tickets" good for transportation and lodging to and from his dream concert. He wants to share the event with some of his neighbors, which ends up including a couple of parole officers, a pair of black teens on their way to play golf, the middle-aged white proprietresses of the corner store where Chappelle buys his smokes, and the entire marching band from Dayton's Central State University.
Together, Chappelle, his neighbors, and his musical cohorts concoct a seductive cultural alternative: Fierce but not coarse. Righteous but not rigid. Funny and friendly yet uncompromising. Some performances (Kweli's frantic flow, Scott's poorly chosen songs) disappoint, and the movie has a dawdling pace that some viewers might find frustrating. But I found it to be utterly charming and, I hope, not just because I'm someone predisposed to get excited about the prospect of a Fugees reunion.