Dave Chappelle’s Problem

He can’t escape white people.

In late 2004, before Dave Chappelle dropped out, he had an incredibly great idea: convince all his favorite musicians to play a free show, in Brooklyn, for an audience comprising random people from New York and random people from Chappelle’s home town in Ohio. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is the result of this idea, and, besides being the most overwhelmingly joyous, enjoyable, and affirming movie I’ve seen this year, it also outlines a vision of a world where black artists make black art for black people—though whites are encouraged to buy in. It’s a multiracial vision, but a unicultural one: a black polity.

Briefly, Chappelle’s troubles: By 2005, he had surpassed Chris Rock as white America’s favorite black comic. While Rock was garnering mixed reviews for his routines as host of the Oscars—Hollywood proving more fond of Halle Berry’s flavor of blackness—Chappelle signed a lucrative deal with Comedy Central for two more seasons of Chappelle’s Show. But shortly after, Chappelle disappeared, surfacing months later in South Africa. He offered no explanation, and speculation centered on the usual afflictions of suddenly famous black men. He, like Bobby Brown and Richard Pryor before him, had taken seriously to various processed forms of the coca leaf. He couldn’t stand the pressure of staying funny. He had literally gone crazy and ran abroad for medical care.

The truth is simpler, and more interesting. Chappelle had, essentially, become uncomfortable with playing a black fool for white audiences. Upon his return from Africa, he told Oprah Winfrey a revealing anecdote: While Chappelle acted out a sketch that featured him as a pixie in blackface, he heard a white crew member laughing a little too hard. This was, apparently, the galvanizing moment that caused Chappelle to reassess the intent of his comedy, and the kind of laughs he was giving his audience. As he told Time, “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.”

In Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, and the reunited Fugees all converge on a street corner in what the movie insists is Bed-Stuy (though many in the neighborhood would call it by a less significant name—Clinton Hill) and give powerful, stunning performances. These live moments are interspersed with scenes of Chappelle in Ohio, convincing strangers and acquaintances—the woman at the convenience store where he buys his cigarettes, the entire Ohio Central State University marching band—to get on a bus and come to Bed-Stuy. We also see rehearsals for the show, Chappelle interacting with the local community, and some interviews with the performers.

The movie presents Chappelle and his guests as preoccupied with notions of blackness, and of how to present blackness in a white world. It becomes apparent that this concert is not only a gift to the audience, but, in that the audience is predominantly black, a gift and a relief to the performers.

All the musicians listed above are more popular with whites than with blacks. Hip-hop is, as the media constantly trumpets, more listened to by whites, because blacks are a minority. But the audience for these artists, mostly belonging to a school of rap music that has been unfortunately labeled “conscious” hip-hop, is even more white-dominated than hip-hop in general. When I attended a mostly white, small liberal-arts college in Maine, in the late 1990s, this was the rap music that was culturally acceptable to listen to. It was seen as a thinking man’s alternative to the crass Biggies and Tupacs of the mainstream. Nowadays, even many whites have left this mentality behind. White writers on trend-influencing music Web sites such as—or Slate—regularly praise the genius behind much mainstream hip-hop, with its fixation on cocaine dealing. Conscious hip-hop, then, is often left with less-trendy white youth, the cultural laggards.

Sad prospects for black artists who are legitimately trying to engage the black personal and political experience. It’s no wonder Chappelle is confused: He shares his favorite music with the people who love him. He’s unable to escape white people.

This, then, is what makes the block party such an exciting, heady experience for Chappelle and his guests: a chance to speak to the audience they want, not the audience they have. At one point during the performance, Chappelle, ad-libbing a comic routine from behind the drums, beams as he describes the audience: “5,000 black people chilling in the rain; 19 white people peppered into the crowd.” This excitement is infectious even through the movie screen; it’s impossible not to get carried away by the immediacy of the performances and the intoxication of the political vision. But, after leaving the theater, it’s hard not to reflect on the manufactured nature, and the sheer impracticability, of this vision.

Chappelle seems eager to avoid acknowledging this slight incoherence. During one reflective scene, the perceptive drummer for the Roots, Ahmir Thompson, says, “Dave, like us, is in a situation where his audience doesn’t look like him—” But here Chappelle breaks in and diverts attention: “Tell him what I said about the snipers.” Thompson smiles, slightly bemused. Chappelle continues, “I said the D.C. snipers had to be black. They were taking off weekends!” Cut to the next scene.

Though the artists here are typically aggressive to whites in message, but friendly to them in attitude, their individual politics differ vastly. They range from Fred Hampton Jr., son of a Black Panther killed by police officers, whose militancy is on display in a brief speech to the audience, to Wyclef Jean, who, in a scene where he creates a song with the Central State marching band, ends by telling them never to blame whites for their problems; as long as they have a library in their neighborhood, their future is their own responsibility. Chappelle himself quotes approvingly Dead Prez’s song “Hip-Hop”—” I’m down for runnin’ up on them crackers in they city hall”—but it’s not clear whether he endorses the message, or the medium.

Chappelle’s creation, for a day, of a space where blacks can impart wisdom and empowerment mostly to other blacks is admirable and uplifting, but even in this evanescent moment, the cracks of reality appear. The difficulties of racial separatism are illustrated by a young black man who has come on the bus from Ohio. He was relieved to come to Brooklyn, to see tons of people who look like him, more so because a few days before he came, a white person had called him a nigger. The incident? On the golf course, the young man tried to discreetly relieve himself near the white man’s yard. *

All around the scene of the concert, the neighborhood is changing. For instance, I live about 10 blocks away. There’s a truly terrific new Italian restaurant around the corner from the scene of the show. As whites move in, seeking a taste of the black experience (much like the audience for this film), a shifting, ever-evolving racial mix has emerged, mostly uneasily. While Chappelle’s black polity must be appealing to the blacks who watch his show, in this neighborhood the cars mostly blast the sounds of Hot 97, and the sounds of Hot 97 are not Chappelle’s sounds.

Correction: April 4, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly stated that the young black man had hit his tee shot into the white man’s yard. In fact, he was discreetly relieving himself in a place where the white man could see him. Return to the corrected sentence.