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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

This week at SFC: Dave Chapelle's Block Party

Thursday 13th July

All our screenings are FREE ones.

Film makers, film students, amateurs... please submit short films for pre-feature screenings.

Feature will commence at 8:15 pm. Doors open at 7:30 pm as usual.

Dave Chapelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry/USA/2006/103')

In Dave Chappelle's Block Party, much of which unfolds over a single rainy day and night, Mr. Chappelle looks and sounds alternately ebullient and weary. It is directed by Michel Gondry, the madcap genius behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but in its tone and vibe feels like Mr. Chappelle's all the way. The setup is blissfully simple: a free block party on a dead-end street in Bed-Stuy with a lineup of musicians, some of whom, like Kanye West and Mos Def, have put in appearances on Chappelle's Show The nominal idea, the comic explains on camera, was "the concert I've always wanted to see." The result, which ping-pongs between Brooklyn and Mr. Chappelle's hometown in Ohio, is a tantalizing sketch-portrait of the artist amid an outpouring of hard beats and soul.

The film opens with down-home flavor as two men vainly try to jump-start a car in front of a field edged by housing projects. Mr. Chappelle tries to take a look at the engine, only to be ignored by the men (one even waves him away with his hand), who may be distracted by the dead engine or by the sounds of an approaching marching band. Speaking into a megaphone, Mr. Chappelle ticks off the acts that will appear later in the show, the names ballooning across the frame. It's an appealingly daffy sequence, in its absurdism the most Gondry-like moment in the film, and it slyly makes the point that in the context of a real-life problem like a dead car, celebrity means absolutely nothing at all.

For most of the rest of the film, we bounce between preparations for the concert, which includes recruiting a marching band from Ohio's Central State University to play Bed-Stuy, and the event itself. The other featured acts include Dead Prez, who spit out "Turn Off the Radio" as if pounding nails ("you wanna stop terrorists?/ start with the U.S. imperialists"), Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Roots (with Big Daddy Kane) and, in the film's biggest jolt, a newly reunited Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel performing a few songs from their incarnation as the Fugees. Making true on his claim that every comic wants to be a musician, Mr. Chappelle also grabs a microphone, taps bongos and, in a lovely digression inside a thrift store, pays homage to one of his heroes, Thelonious Monk.

In its structure, at least, Dave Chappelle's Block Party recalls Mel Stuart's 1973 documentary Wattstax, which intersperses talking-head interviews with highlights from a concert (popularly called the black Woodstock) staged at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum a year earlier to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. The interviews, which include men and women soul-rapping about the black American experience, along with some hilariously trenchant observations from Richard Pryor, work a galvanizing counterpoint to the headliners from Stax Records. One difference between the films is that while Mr. Stuart lets the songs play out to the end, Mr. Gondry rather maddeningly cuts away in the middle of performances, which wreaks havoc on the documentary's rhythms and not in a good way.

The other difference between the films is race. Wattstax ends on a freeze frame of a black fist, an electrifying sign of the times. Outside of the Dead Prez and a cameo by Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the slain Black Panther activist, Dave Chappelle's Block Party appears fairly tame by comparison. It is and it isn't. Race is clearly never far from Mr. Chappelle's mind or, one imagines, that of most everyone else in the film, but neither is the complicating factor of celebrity. Talking to Time magazine, Mr. Chappelle said that "everyone around me says, 'You're a genius!'; 'You're great!'; 'That's your voice!' But I'm not sure that they're right." When someone as big as Mr. Chappelle blows up, the only color some see is green, which is something this enormously gifted man seems intent on correcting.


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