Block Party | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Block Party

A great day in Brooklyn

A lot of well-meaning African-American kids with green dollar signs in their eyes and African consciousness in their hearts have dreams of what they'll do when they get rich ... bitch. They'll go "back" to Africa and throw a huge party for the hood, featuring all their favorite artists. In reality, though, when they finally do strike it rich they'll throw a huge party -- for their new neighborhood of associates with similar x,000,000-ed up bank accounts -- and the African sweatshops that produce the garments from their new urban-bleh clothing line is as close to the motherland as they'll get.



When Dave Chappelle got his $50 million reparations check (on behalf of all the pre-Pryor comics and entertainers shuffling the chitlin' circuit who got ripped off), he did exactly what the kid in him always said he'd do: He went back to Africa, then came back to Brooklyn and threw a phaaat party featuring all his favorite musicians.

These artists -- Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Common, Cody Chestnutt, Martin Luther, The Roots, dead prez -- are mostly icons of the '97-'03 era, when postmod soul music pinnacled in balanced creativity and popularity. Many of 'em are just barely around anymore, surviving off small compromises: a Nike commercial here, a Black Eyed Peas collabo there; anything to maintain a smidgen of relevance. If not for Kanye West -- a diminished presence here, rightfully -- many of Block Party's artists would be completely off our radar.


Artists such as Badu and dead prez have been suppressed because of the strong adbusting, format-fucking character of their work. And this is exactly why Chappelle brought them together for a Brooklyn concert -- a free concert -- and then to theaters for millions more to be implicated. Michel Gondry, of various groovy music videos and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, filmed the day.


"Every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician thinks he's funny," says Chappelle in one philosophical moment. "I'm mediocre at both, but I managed to talk my way into a fortune."


A regular Wattstax/Woodstock doc it's not. There is a story: what makes Chappelle happy -- because it's clearly not just wealth and fame. The opening segments find Chappelle driving a Prius through Dayton, Ohio (not far from his Yellow Springs farm home), promoting his party with a bullhorn. No logo-wrapped Hummer or stretch Navigator on spinners ... a hybrid-fueled, economy-sized Toyota.


He hands out free concert passes to Ohio-ans, including the entire Central State University band, with more gush than the recipients. He Fluxes out a huge Brooklyn church owned by two aged hippies who don't even like rap, but they like Chappelle. Which bares his dilemma: Benevolence is what delights him, yet without the fortune and fame he wouldn't be able to pull any of this off.


Another complexity is that Chappelle, like his fellow musical artists, doesn't have audiences that reflect their complexion, as pointed out in the movie by The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove." That clearly isn't the case with this particular show, drawing the largest black gathering in Brooklyn (in rain!) to not be interrupted by New York's finest or thugged-out's ugliest. Yet when you pan across a Chappelle Show or a Roots audience, it's mostly a spotted-white animal.


Lauryn Hill, who appears in the climactic ending with the reunited Fugees, endures this same peculiarity of presenting proudly black music to roundly white audiences. Her past discussions of that point somehow led to a mean but false rumor that she didn't want white folks buying her album. It's probably what's led to her reclusion from the music industry. And when she takes the stage, alone, in Block Party, singing "Killing Me Softly," the close-up of her face reveals some of the saddest, bluest eyes you've ever seen -- a dark, stark contrast to the happy-go-funky Chappelle throughout the movie.


She asks the crowd, "Where y'all been?"


They respond, "Where you been?"


She points to her children backstage and in her single happy moment responds, "That's where I been."



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