The world première of Dave Chappelle's Block Party at the Toronto International Film Festival last September had the vibe of a sold-out concert -- all those spotlights beaming to and fro in front of a venerable old theater, all that pushing and shoving for the best seats, all those celebs in the crowd, all that restless clapping in anticipation of the opening credits, all those bobbing heads and waving hands in the audience once the show finally started. It did not disappoint those expecting a raucous party. The film, from its deadpan start to its languorous finish, provides the most joyous moviegoing experience in years, one reminiscent of those days when folks would sit down for the Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense and wind up bopping and throbbing in the aisles. It happened again at an advance screening of Block Party last week: You could feel the row of seats bouncing to the rhythm of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's drum beat, as toes and fingertips kept time like a hand-me-down Rolex.
Such anxiousness at Toronto was to be expected: Not only did the movie boast an all-star roster of hip-hop and soul performers -- Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Kanye West, and Dead Prez, all backed by The Roots, with a reunited Fugees as last-second headliners -- but it also marked the return of Dave Chappelle after so much rumor-mongering in the past year, when the comedian took off to South Africa in the spring of 2005, just after signing a $50 million deal with Comedy Central. For those left broken-hearted when there proved to be no third season of Chappelle's Show, Block Party would rekindle an old flame. The addition of director Michel Gondry, who peddles artsy heartbreak for the big screen (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and artsy mindfuck for the small one (as maker of videos for Björk and the White Stripes), only added to the impatient allure.
The movie takes place several months before Chappelle bolted to a friend's house in South Africa, and contains not a hint of his imminent departure. He looks not like a man plagued by self-doubt, and acts not at all like a man guilt-ridden over his sudden wealth. Instead, he jokes about his fame and riches -- claiming to be mediocre at standup comedy, yet still able to "talk my way into a fortune" -- and uses both to finance not only this concert in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, but to bring in busloads of common folks from his western Ohio hometown for the gig. He jokes that he's the Willy Wonka of Dayton, handing out golden tickets to parole officers and young brothers on their way to the golfing green and the middle-aged white woman who sells him smokes at the local convenience store.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
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And, most specially, Chappelle finds a slot on the show for a marching band from Central State University. One second they're rehearsing on a football field in the flyover; the next, they're thundering through "Jesus Walks" in a Brooklyn 'hood, with Kanye West as their bandleader. (West was inspired enough to use the same device for his performance of "Gold Digger" at this year's Grammy Awards.) And, later, the band members receive a pep talk/lecture from Fugee Wyclef Jean, who asks them what they'd do if they were president and instructs them not to expect shit from or blame shit on white folks. Get yours, he demands, slapping his hand on the piano to bang home his point that you make your own destiny.
You could read the entirety of Block Party as an essay in self-determination -- the holla that begets the howl. Chappelle jokes about the racial makeup of the crowd (mostly black, some white, all looking for "the Mexicans"); Dead Prez raps about how Uncle Sam's the "pushaman" lockin' up young brothers; Fred Hampton Jr., son of the slain Black Panther leader, calls for the release of all political prisoners. There's no ignoring skin color; even the white horn player in the black band shrinks under the weight of the tossed-off joke about how many white folks it takes to change a light bulb.
There are moments to make you smile -- Chappelle's visit to kids in the school Biggie Smalls once attended, the kooky hippies living in the run-down church near the stage, Chappelle and Mos Def's hammy Vegas routine -- but in the end, the music elicits the biggest grins. Among the highlights: an Erykah Badu-Jill Scott duet, during which their voices intertwine like silken threads; The Roots' sonic "Boom!" that levels a street corner; Lauryn Hill killing them softly with Roberta Flack's song; Black Star's shining moments that come and go too quickly; Kanye's way-out-West routine. Half the time, you forget who's even throwing the bash, which is probably just how Chappelle wanted it.