In the summer of 2004, one man had a vision. This man, a comedian and actor named Dave Chappelle, wanted to throw a giant block party in the heart of the Bronx. Chappelle compiled a variety of acts to play at his concert, ranging from contemporary stars like Kanye West to unlikely reunion acts such as The Fugees. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is a good movie because it breaks away from many stereotypes
associated with hip-hop. Bell hooks, an infamously outspoken writer, composed an essay dealing with white supremacy in our society. Hooks, writing about the romanticized myth of Christopher Columbus, states, “Indeed, the invitation to celebrate Columbus was for some of us a compelling call to educate the nation for critical consciousness—to seize the moment to transform everyone’s understanding of our nation’s history” (Columbus, p. 198). Hooks believes that “civilization” is synonymous with “whiteness”, and together they both stand for domination (Columbus, p.199). Hooks asserts that people of color should embrace principles of solidarity to stand against this domination (Columbus, p. 204). “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” epitomizes this notion of solidarity. Chappelle’s film has a good social message because it defies many cultural stereotypes. Hip-hop culture traditionally glorifies a hedonistic lifestyle, objectifies women, and perpetuates a thuggish attitude. The ideas and themes present in “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” go a long way in dispelling some of these assumptions about hip-hop.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is an extremely unconventional motion picture for several reasons, and perhaps this explains the limited success it found in theaters. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” was filmed in the style of a documentary; the events happening on screen are unscripted. For example, many scenes showcase candid conversations between many of the performers during rehearsals for the concert. The live, unedited nature of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” creates a raw, visceral experience that is for the most part absent from cinema today. In an era of over-produced, big budget Hollywood blockbusters, this movie with zero special effects or computer animation separated itself from the crowd. However, movie attendees were not attracted to this low budget concert documentary. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” was met with abysmally poor reception in theaters. The film made less than twelve million dollars during its theatrical run, which barely exceeded a month. Over fifty percent of those twelve million dollars came in the opening weekend, and each following week both the ticket sales and the number of screens showing the movie nationwide dropped significantly (Box Office). Whether purposefully or not, Chappelle seemed to directly address the film’s financial woes when, speaking on behalf of the performers at his concert, he declared “’We all have a message we want to get across, … and it’s not just about making money’” (Benedikt, “Movie”). Chappelle wanted to throw a concert for the underprivileged youth of the inner city ghetto, and he did not care in the slightest whether or not he would be turning a profit. An entertainer giving back to his fans in such an idealistic way is rare in today’s popular culture, and the party that Dave Chappelle throws in the slums of the Bronx is an inspiring example.
While the film did quite poorly in theaters, it was met with much critical praise. The fact that critics supported the movie but ticket sales lacked so severely presents an interesting conundrum. Some may say that the disjointed, choppy nature of the film was a turn off to people going to watch a movie. Others may maintain that the genre and coarse nature of the live music performances that are a central part of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” simply did not appeal to the mass market. Another distinct possibility is that perhaps the social message that “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” asserted was unwelcome in mainstream popular culture.
In one scene of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”, a group of black college students talk candidly with a famous musician. This artist, Wyclef Jean, tells them that they have an opportunity to better themselves. He warns them that by blaming the “white man”, many young, poor, black kids convince themselves that they will never better their situation. Jean angrily dispels that common excuse and shouts that the “white man ain’t responsible for s***” (Gondry). Jean inspires the group to refuse to blame the “white man”, and to go out and make something of their lives. Hip-hop artists are not known for giving rousing speeches to under-privileged students about the importance of continuing their education. Another key scene in the film showcases Talib Kweli performing his song “Get By”. Kweli is a well-known, successful singer in the hip-hop community. He sings, “They [people] need somethin to rely on, we get high on all types of drug?/When, all you really need is love” (Kweli). Here Talib Kweli discourages the use of drugs, a mainstay of the generic hip-hop stereotype. He also advocates love. Hip-hop artists often seem to not even be aware of the concept of love. According to the general stereotypes, hip-hop is all about instant gratification and pleasure. The fact that this extremely successful artist is singing about love from the stage to all of these impoverished youth is supremely noteworthy. These scenes show a completely different side to hip-hop. Another common stereotype of the hip-hop that “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” challenges is the objectifying of women. In the mass majority of hip-hop music videos, women’s entire purpose is to gyrate and rub against the microphone coordinators. These ladies are always scantily clad, and they consistently send out an extremely sexual vibe.
In “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”, there are several instances where women are shown in an extremely positive light. Not only are these women not shown in an overtly sexual light, but also they are portrayed as promoting good, constructive ways for female African Americans to enjoy the hip hop culture without degrading themselves. One particular scene features critically acclaimed hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill display her child with much parental pride. After a riveting performance, Hill declares, “This is where I’ve been!” as she points to her barely on stage young child (Gondry). Hill is referring to the long break she took from her musical career to have and raise her baby.
Typically hip-hop promotes the idea that women are nothing more than play things to be used by men and discarded without any further consequences. By showing Lauryn Hill as a proud mother, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” advances the idea that hip-hop vixens are nothing more than worthless skanks. The moment in the movie is brief; Lauryn Hill’s child is only seen on camera for a fleeting instant. However, the message rings loud and clear. The editors of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” could have easily left Lauryn Hill’s child out of the final version. By choosing to leave the footage of Hill pointing out her child in “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”, Chappelle again asserts that his film has a good social message.
The next stereotype of hip-hip that is demystified in “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is the pro-thug life attitude that many people commonly associate with modern hip-hop. Many successful contemporary hip-hop artists are famous for flaunting their street credibility. This may mean that a rapper has a history of crime. Some of the biggest stars in hip-hop today have made their entire careers rapping about being former drug dealers and battling against the police. Others brag about acts of violence committed against rival rappers. The hip-hop community is known for taking advantage of conflicts between two famous rappers and making money off of their disputes. The entire hip-hop industry is fueled by this idea that the more a rapper is involved in illegal activity, the more marketable he will be to the mainstream audience. Many hip-hop artists come off as uneducated, trouble making street hoodlums. In “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”, this entire notion of hip-hop being full of thugs is absent. The artists that perform are, for the most part, very different from the stereotypical hip-hop star. Instead of appearing as mumbling hooligans, these artists seem to be legitimate singers and songwriters. Throughout the film, scenes of conversations between the concert’s various performers show the artists to be thoughtful, literate people. The dress of one particular performer in “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is sure to surprise many critics of the hip-hop industry.
One rapper named Common is known for his unique sense of fashion style within the hip-hop community. Instead of the all too conventional baggy jeans, baseball cap and chain, Common adorns himself in a newsboy cap, fitted designer jeans, and a collared shirt and tie under a nice sweater. This is hardly the dress of an up-to-no-good street thug. The hip-hop community has its standards, and “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” does not attempt to change any of those. Instead, Dave Chappelle simply tries to show the public that there is more to hip-hop than thugs and gangsters.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” has a great social message. It challenges many of the stereotypes that the average person associates with hip-hop. In doing so, this film shows that it is full of hope. A little girl watching rap videos may see “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” and realize that there is more to being a woman involved in hip-hop than a rear-shaking dancer, and it is okay for her to want to raise a family. This movie could teach young boys that they do not need to be drug-dealing murderers in order to be successful rappers. The sense of hope at the end of the film is truly inspiring. The attendees of the concert all seem to have had a memorable experience. Chappelle himself called the block party “the best single day of my career” (qtd. in Benedikt). Coming from a man who has had a hugely successful career, this means a lot. Chappelle must have realized the lives that he touched that rainy day in the Bronx. The opportunity to see all of those wildly successful hip-hop acts perform live, for free, will most likely never present itself to any of the people at the concert again. After all, the block party was in a bad neighborhood in the inner city Bronx. In an interview with Todd Gilchrist, a well- known online journalist, Chappelle spoke about one of the lasting effects of the movie. He says, “One of the things in the movie for me, one of the bigger things, was the feeling of community” (Gilchrist).
Clearly Chappelle must have realized some sense of the larger implications of his block party. Inspiring all of those African American people with pride in their culture, pride in their race, and pride in themselves is a truly great achievement. Chappelle must know that the lives he touched that rainy day September will forever remember that there is more to their race than the accepted hip-hop stereotype. Thanks to the video release of the documentary, hopefully that message will continue to reach more people.