“Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place,” from “American Factory” directors Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, performed to a full and grateful audience.
When Dave Chappelle greeted audiences at the recently reopened Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night, surveying a crowd of nearly 6,000 mostly maskless after the world premiere of his new documentary “David Chappelle: This Time This Place,” he did not mince words. “What a shitty year this has been,” he said. “I am very sorry if you have lost someone, or lost anything, during this pandemic. “
It was a recognition of the bigger picture in the midst of a busy scene and a natural extension of the film. “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place,” which was listed as untitled until the time of the opening credits, captures Chappelle’s extraordinary efforts in 2020 to put on a series of outdoor comedy shows in a cornfield near his home in the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio (population 3,700). As his ambition grew and virtually every revered comic book roamed the city, Chappelle and his team fought to keep events lively even as residents attempted to shut them down and the possibility of positive COVID tests loomed. The film follows this exciting trajectory in tandem with George Floyd’s emotional protests in the city, positioning the shows at the heart of last year’s socio-political shit storm.
With so many moving parts, Chappelle has been smart to hire filmmakers who know what they’re doing. The comedian called on his neighbors in Ohio, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, Oscar winners “American Factory”, to direct. The result is much more than an average concert documentary, and instead uses the shows as a way to explore the resilience of small American towns in the midst of an existential crisis.
No one knew what to expect until the premiere, which served as the closing night for the Tribeca Festival as well as one of the city’s biggest in-person indoor events since last year. With no distributor attached to the project and critics asked to keep their reviews until release, it was difficult to tell if Chappelle was trying to keep a lid on explosive material or if the film’s recent production meant that the projection was technically a work in progress.
However, with its catchy blend of top performance and community trust, “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place” amounts to a first-rate pandemic survival story, as well as one of the most successful films. satisfying recent memory on the difficulties of funny people in difficult times. Reichert and Bognar focus almost as much on local business owners and activists as Chappelle himself, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to maintain his creative network serve as an absorbing emotional base. Chappelle’s comedy work tends to surface on Netflix, which also released “American Factory,” and the streamer seems like a natural home for this new project. Anyone who plays the film will have a unique opportunity to tap into Chappelle’s dedicated fan base while reaching other audiences more intrigued by the larger premise.
Much like he did with Michel Gondry for the dazzling 2005 Brooklyn concert film “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” in 2005, Chappelle tracked down filmmakers whose sensibilities reflected his larger goals. After the screening, Chappelle praised Reichert and Bognar, whose work on “American Factory” in Ohio received its approval when the film was on its awards season trajectory in 2019. “I knocked on their door. “he said,” the same way black people do when they barbecue.
Reichert, who juggled numerous on-camera interviews throughout the film, said in his introduction to the screening that the comedians and filmmakers “both grapple with what this world presents to us.” And indeed, “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place” serves as an eloquent meeting of minds, as it allows Chappelle’s handpicked comic showcases to shine alongside the directors’ nuanced look at the city’s fragile economy. (Despite some reactions from dyspeptic neighbors, Chappelle’s shows ultimately generated $ 9 million for the region.)
Their cameras appear to capture every aspect of the dramatic summer, including the efforts of a wacky zoning inspector to stop the events and cornfield owner Steve Wirrig, the recurring attempts to keep them down, as well as the security for shows that include some heartbreaking test results. The film also has a lot of famous faces in candid moments, taking the opportunity to explore the backyard of the comedians (many of them spend their free time kayaking on a nearby river). It’s especially heartening to see Chappelle go into mentoring mode for many of her performers, as he advises Mo Amer on her new Netflix autobiography series and helps Michelle Wolf tell more about her personal life on stage. Wolf, who moved in with Chappelle and her family during the pandemic, provides a particularly poignant subplot in which she struggles to understand her future.
Still, anyone looking for pure comedic gems will not be disappointed. As the filmmakers cut between backstage talks and performances, the stage antics range from Chris Rock Facetiming with a confused Kevin Hart to Chappelle mumbling how his pal Donnell Rawlings is ‘the king of too soon’ while the boisterous comedian shouts at the crowd, “The protest head is shit!” There’s an ironic Jon Stewart beaming over what appears to be his first real interaction with other creators in months, and poet Amir Sulaiman performs a thought-provoking rendition of “We Must Win” before a teary-eyed crowd. (Subsequently, Chappelle recognizes the heavy mood with his usual bite: “Well, all of you white people are feeling guilty now.”)
As “David Chappelle: This Time This Place” explains, the comedian drew his activist spirit from his scholarly father, who “created a context for art”. The film plays as an extension of this trend, up to the utopian energy of a 4th of July celebration full of symbolic connotations on the holiday through dark times. The post-screening event, a hip hop showcase for New York artists ranging from Talib Kweli to Q-Tip, kept the energy going as audience members (including everyone from Rock to bespectacled JR and Don Cheadle) attended the show.
After all this time on screen, Chappelle didn’t seem too keen on spending a lot of time on stage himself, but he relished the opportunity to start the party. “For a comedian, the idea of no audience is infuriating,” he said in the documentary. Its memorable first screening confirmed that the audience is still here, ready to hear more.
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