For better or worse, Dave Chappelle has managed to infuse our cultural lexicon with all sorts of snappy in-jokes from his wildly successful Chappelle's Show. Most of us have probably lost count of the number of times some drunk would-be comedian in the local bar screams to his buddies, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" or "It'll get ya drunk!" or "What did the five fingers say to the face?" (FYI, guys when Dave Chappelle says it, it's funny. When you do, it's just annoying.)
In fact, Chappelle fans seem to be so entranced by his abrasive humor and trademark ear-splitting-yet-charming bray that many think anything he does is funny. During his recent appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, the audience started cracking up when Chappelle lit a cigarette.
Therefore, it's surprising that Chappelle would willingly relegate himself to the back seat in his latest big-screen venture, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. The comedian had a pie-in-the-sky idea to throw together a dream lineup of hip-hop entertainers (among them, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Kanye West) and throw a big-ass block party in Brooklyn. Chappelle travels to his tiny hometown in Ohio to invite a bunch of regular Joes and Janes, offering them transport and lodgings. The most delightful and touching moment comes when Chappelle runs into the Ohio Central State University marching band, and invites the lot of them to come perform at his party. As the students leap and shriek with joy at the prospect of sharing the same billing with the Fugees, it's impossible not to grin.
Chappelle isn't the star here, and some of the funniest lines of the film aren't delivered by him, but by the average hometown folks he encounters. A doughy middle-aged female store clerk from Dayton is both excited and distressed over finding the proper attire for her first ever "rap concert": "I knew I should have bought a thong!"
We also learn some surprising facets of Chappelle's character. He plays the piano well, actually, the only thing he can play is Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight." He relishes clowning around with the musicians during rehearsal, melding comedy and music with a lounge singer shtick, bouncing off Mos Def on drums:
"Hey, Mos, did I tell you the one about the industrious prostitute? She had a second vagina put on her hip so she could make money on the side."
Chappelle still interjects his raucous, abrasive humor, but this is really a concert film, expertly and lovingly shot by director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The performances are stellar, the exuberant crowds are inspiring (donning plastic sheeting, they're undeterred by the light rain), and the locals Chappelle interviews are fascinating and often heartwarming. Still, the film begins to drag a little near the final reel, and the Fugees' much-ballyhooed reunion finale actually comes off as a bit anti-climactic.
While many critics have reveled in skewering Chappelle for his alleged stress meltdown and reluctance to return to Comedy Central for more seasons, painting him as greedy and whiny, this film really proves that Chappelle is no spoiled Hollywood star. While some could claim this is all just a publicity stunt, it's clear Chappelle really does give a damn about giving something back to his fans and his neighborhood. He may be rich (bee-yotch!), but he's got a damn big heart too.
Sarah Klein is Metro Times culture editor. Send comments to [email protected].