Saturday, November 25, 2006

Weed vs. Cocaine

by Steven Boone

The unrated DVD version of Dave Chappelle's Block Party left me with such dizzying mixed emotions, I was damn near seasick. My ambivalence is easy to pinpoint: Even though offstage he appears as shrewd and commanding as the producer of a cross-country, star-packed concert documentary should be… onstage he acts like he's in an after hours nightclub, buzzed on weed and Hypnotiq:

DAVE: I was at urinal and I couldn't help but notice the guy next to me. His dick was so small...
MOS DEF: How small was it, Dave?
DAVE: He peed on his balls.

Man, Dave, you invited kids, diverse Brooklynites, straightlaced Ohioans, and a sweet old lady to hear you tell dick and ball jokes? This was weed humor, something you'd have to be temporarily relieved of important brain cells not to find insipid. (And let's not even mention the dumbass story of the industrious prostitute.)

Of all the performers he thoughtfully selected in consultation with Questlove of the Roots, Dave himself seems the least in touch with the audience vibe. Yeah, he gets laughs, big ones at times, because of his natural infectious goofiness. That peanut head and cartoon geechee yowl ("Bam! Pimpalicious!") are not to be denied. But you can hear the groan, feel the disappointment when many of his jokes ignore the elevated, loving, communal mood of the event and drag us into the toilet. I thought of Chris Rock's old joke: "They ain't got nothing in a black mall but sneakers and baby clothes. I guess that's all they think we doing—runnin and fuckin!" Dave's Block Party jokes are mostly runnin and fuckin. In a setting so radically life-affirming, that shit hurts.

Sounds like I'm coming from some tightass black conservative perspective, but this is not a plea for sanitized black art. It's a lament for a brilliant comedian showing poor imagination and failing to take the pulse of a crowd that is clearly Spartacus-devoted to him. (Comedian Tommy Davison once joked about leading the black community on a protest march by singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." It was supposed to be a joke, at least. The vision of an artist using his instruments to break chains puts a chill down my spine and a lump in my throat.)

I wonder if Dave ever saw Rufus Thomas in Wattstax. Thomas' performance at that landmark concert in Watts, Los Angeles (the black Woodstock, the '70s Block Party) is a study in the power of pure charisma. The paunchy, balding soul jester grooves bowlegged onto the stage with his white sideburns, matching ivory go-go boots, lavender shorts and superhero cape. He coos to the afroed, platformed stadium crowd of thousands, "Ain't I'm cleeeaannn?" It ain't a question. The crowd adores him, this middle-aged fool, this lunatic. But they also respect him. With an authority I haven't seen in any U.S. president, he works the masses into a Soul frenzy with Breakdown, orchestrates a dance riot on the stadium field to The Funky Chicken, then manages to direct everyone back to their seats with a combination of G-rated Dolemite-style jive, comical rhymes and "Power to the People" exhortations. Nobody gets hurt.

That's the kind of emcee I expected Dave to be, a fool but also a leader. In Block Party, when not officially performing, his intelligence and humanistic impulse shine through. He reaches out and influences folks as effortlessly as Thomas. He shows genuine pride at booking the radical rap group Dead Prez—the sonic/social heirs to Public Enemy's righteous noise.

So why does he chose to squander this power onstage with material a middle school delinquent wouldn't carve into his desk?

I suspect a lot of black comedians of Dave's generation (which is mine too) have taken the wrong lessons from their gods, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. For a moment, comic brilliance seemed to go hand in hand with being ready to ejaculate the terms "bitch" and "pussy" on cue. But Pryor and Murphy learned, as their careers mellowed/waned, that they were adored for their imagination, vulnerability and daring, not for their shit-talking. The "raw" talk that Eddie so admired in Richard wasn't his rudeness but his honesty. Unlike Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle also latched onto Pryor's stealthily conscientious politics. Chappelle's Show's race-obsessed sketches often play like outtakes from the old Richard Pryor Show—supported by the fact that a key collaborator on Dave's TV opus is Pryor's incendiary former writer, the brilliant Paul Mooney.

But the biggest differences between Pryor and his spawn are his sobriety and his sense of urgency. While Rock's and Chappelle's styles of delivery have evolved from sedate and measured to cartoon manic as their audiences swelled, their political intensity seems to have gone in the opposite direction. "I was in South Africa the other day," Rock would calmly, flatly mutter onstage back in the late '80s. "Or was that Boston?" Boom. A cheap shot, but loaded with thought. Now Chris screams at the top of his lungs about hack comedian topics du jour. Chappelle, who prides himself on being the least ambitious or politically savvy in a family of D.C. intellectuals, nevertheless makes trenchant social observations as if it's in the blood. Yet he prefers to lodge his grievances with Power in the guise of an aimless stoner whose goal is just to get by and get high. This persona's problem with The Law is simply that it sometimes puts up an obstacle to his good times. All the inner city horrors he describes along the way provide grotesque comic window dressing, like Pryor's winos and dopefiends. With Pryor, though, the horror lingered in memory long after the laughs.

Though he isn't the emcee at Wattstax, Pryor does preside over the event and gives it hilarious, piercing context. Stuart intercuts between the concert, street interviews with Watts residents and Pryor's color commentary, filmed in some black studio limbo. Only Pryor is visible during his segments, but you can hear others (camera crew? entourage?) dying laughing through his merciless riffs. Pryor's jabs at white supremacy and police brutality harmonize well with Chappelle's offstage banter. The distinction between their styles, their eras—between brilliant clarity and addled brilliance—is evident in the eyes: Dave's are sleepy; Richard's are startled saucers, narrowing down only to express rage.

Pryor may have done boxcars of cocaine in his time, but whatever that did to his system, it didn't dampen his fire onstage. Whatever Dave is smoking, it isn't helping him reach the bar Richard set for performers of radical imagination—a bar that at one time he seemed capable of clearing and re-setting beyond anybody's expectations.

Images from Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Unrated Version (Universal) and Wattstax-The Special Edition (Warner), both on DVD.


  1. I know I'm alone on this Best of the Year crusade I'm on. And I know I went a little overboard on that Spike documentary. But c'mon: you can't deny the infectuous laughter and general good will of Dave's film (I don't see it as a Gondry picture). I think Dave's stand up routines pale in comparisson to Pryor's, no doubt, but they work within the film as a brief relief from the musical onslaught. And I really dig the music: I think Dead Prez are the fucking shit and their set was the best of the bunch.

    I think Dave knows his little routine is ridiculous and I think he says as much to Mos Def and the band in the practice room. This is a stretch, I know, but hear me out: by using this conventional method he's furthering the film's communal power message. It may not be his aim but nevertheless it says, there was a time when a good block party could unite a community for, at the least, a day of carefree fun. Dave's block party, by nature of the film supporting it, aims to bridge this Brooklyn get together with the rest of the world, showing us that life's more than the "small fortune" he's talked himself into. And his genuine spirit offstage (in Dayton in particular) helps shower us, his audience, with a generosity unmatched in popular American culture.

    I said in an email that the picture makes race a subtext, unlike the foregrounding in Cappelle's Show. And that may still be true but part of these artists' hip hop is borne from their heritage, skin tone and upbringing. Race is such a prickly topic, still today, but simply amassing this lineup shows there are artists in America willing to engage it without a two-ton hammer like Paul "Big Whitey" Haggis. Even Chappelle's Show seems a feather touch compared to Haggis' fire and brimstone shitstorm of platforming. But BLOCK PARTY's agenda is mostly of the feel good vibe and that's probably why I like it so much. While not dopey it certainly succeeds at letting us bask in Dave's worldview of get in, get dirty, get yours but don't forget to laugh cuz this shit is preposterous.

    I may have grown up the lone white boy amongst "you people" (ha! I'm sorry! remember: "preposterous") so I ape to feel connected to black community more than I'm warranted, I bet, but shit, it's part of me. And my girlfriend may continually joke, "Ryland, you know you're not black, right?" and I know the answer loud and clear, but shit, it was ground into me. From kindergarten to sixth grade I was the only white boy in my Catholic school classroom. As we got older I wasn't included as much but there was a time when I, too, listened to Prince and Big Daddy Kane with John and Denye. This is (potentially?) apologist bullshit, I know, but I feel like I have to acknowledge it because it's part of why I dig this movie so much.

    The film is not perfect by any means but it made me happy to be alive and a part of the world in these dire times. And it makes me nostalgic for New York, watching it now, here, on the West Coast. It's my first Roger Ebert pick for best of the year and I'm just gonna ride it out at this point because no other film this year has made me smile for such long stretches. It reminded me there was a time when I was just like the doofus white boy horn players onstage, shucking and jiving, hand in Martin motherfucking Luther King dream hand. Mine's outstretched, ready, willing and aptly able to help heal this fissure. If only more celebrities people were this ostentatious with their power and wealth: the kind grounded in good will and humanistic harmony.

    Really, when the marching band gets the news they'll be going to Brooklyn, your heart didn't fly?

    Much love. Power to all the people.

  2. I agree 100% with your eloquent defense of Block Party. You mentioned before that my rant doesn't make it clear enough that I actually mostly dig the movie. Could be. The fact that I like the flick--and Dave-- so much accounts for my extreme reaction to his peepee jokes. I know Dave is doing something truly great and groundbreaking here, and because of my extremely personal investment (I'm from "the 'hood,' I'm a year older than Chappelle and often feel like he speaks for me and my friends) I suppose I'm hypersensitive to the slightest lapse in taste. It's purely my hangup: Many many years of having white guys try to bond with me by inquiring as to the number of "bitches" I fucked or which Snoop Dog cut is my favorite. Dave and Chris Rock thrill me when they demonstrate that bridging the gap between the races does not necessitate learning a language of runnin and fuckin. I just wanted to see as much of that defiant-but-embracing humanism onstage as I did behind the scenes of Block Party. I wanted the lump in my throat to give way to full-on tears of joy and hope. I wanted there to be nothing standing between us.

    The music, though-- goddamn. The performances did the job of bridge-building beautifully. Dead Prez was my favorite, but the old school reunion with Kane, Rakim and Kool G Rap almost stopped my heart. Certain lens-flared, folkstar moments felt like homages to '60s music docs like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Touching. The loveliest touch was the pan up from the stage to the aging bohemian landlady throwing a peace sign. In one image, you get what we lost. The flower children, the revolutionaries, the soul brothers, the social workers, the artists, activists and working stiffs--at one point we were all on the same page, before the corporate whatchacallit industrial complex stepped in to scatter and delegitimize us like Indian tribes.

    I love Block Party, but there's another musical/comical/humanist masterpiece dying to be made that will truly eradicate the kind of "I'm just a silly whiteboy" self-consciousness I detect in your comments--and the "I'm NOT a runnin-and-fuckin NBA Streets-obsessed silly baseballcap nigga" self-consciousness on my end. Block Party points toward a communal-democratic kind of American flick that doesn't lapse into Stanley Kramer dinner table denial but doesn't lazily assume that the best icebreakers are racial/scatological pseudo-common denominators either.

    Bagdad Cafe. Stop Making Sense.

    I love these conversations, brother.

  3. An odd, late-night thought: What would a double bill of this and PUTNEY SWOPE be like?

  4. aw, man. Putney Swope's a blind spot for me. One of those flicks I always wanted to see, never got a chance to catch.

    But Dave would definitely have seemed at home in the Robert Downey Sr./Melvin van Peebles era of race-mixing satire.

  5. I think it was a nice and informative video, indeed there are parts where emotions tend to be mixed, but I think that is the idea of the DVD.