There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In case you missed those big talks with Oprah Winfrey and James Lipton, here’s the backstory once again: In August 2004, Dave Chappelle signed a $50 million deal with Comedy Central. Eight months later, the race-baiting, Rick James–channeling comic wigged out and fled to South Africa for a “spiritual retreat.” Dave Chappelle’s Block Party sets us down in September 2004, the post-megabucks, pre-flake-out period in which Chappelle seemed both comfortable with fame and energized by it. Hoping to recreate the vibe of Wattstax, the 1973 concert doc hosted by Richard Pryor and featuring the music of Albert King, Isaac Hayes, and Carla Thomas, Chappelle recruited Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, and the reunited Fugees, among others, for a blowout one-day show on the streets of Brooklyn. Though the festivities can get distractingly self-congratulatory onscreen, it’s hard to begrudge Chappelle the success of what he calls the greatest day of his career. The music is uniformly excellent—standout performances include West’s “Get Em High,” Kweli’s “Get By,” and Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop”—and Chappelle’s between-song schtick—yo’ mama jokes, a rap battle with a guy who looks like Mr. T, and an en español sendup of Lil Jon (“¡¿Qué?!”)—is consistently winning. The only wasted talent here belongs to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Björk-video director Michel Gondry, who documents the show and Chappelle’s pre-concert preparations without a hint of directorial flourish—the producers could’ve saved money by simply hiring a tripod. Along with the lack of Gondrian whimsy, the other notable absence here is self-awareness. Though Chappelle notes that the acts on his dream bill “all have a personal message,” it’s also fair to say that they share a fan base—what Common once classified as “coffee-shop chicks and white dudes.” It seems odd, then, that the always-race-conscious comedian ignores this, even earnestly making the pronouncement that the crowd is made up of 5,000 black revelers with “19 white people peppered in”—though every wide shot shows this to be false. Block Party is still nothing but a good time, but it’s hard to ignore opportunities for armchair psychology given Chappelle’s imminent withdrawal from polite society. Why does he willfully deny what’s sitting right there in front of him? Is this what all that retreating was about? If so, somebody needs to let Chappelle know that his concert isn’t the first not to change the world.—Josh Levin