When Dave Chappelle greeted the audience at the newly reopened Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night, surveying a crowd of nearly 6,000 mostly maskless people — who were required to show proof of vaccination at the door — after the world premiere of his new documentary “David Chappelle: This Time This Place,” he did not mince words. “What a shit year it was,” he said. “I’m so sorry if you lost someone, or lost something, during this pandemic.”
It was an acknowledgement of the big picture in the midst of a lively scene, and a natural extension of the movie. “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place,” which was listed as untitled until the moment the opening credits rolled, captures Chappelle’s extraordinary 2020 efforts to hold 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 made their way through town, Chappelle and his team fought to keep the lively events going even as locals attempted to shut it down and the possibility of positive COVID tests loomed. The movie follows that thrilling trajectory in tandem with emotional George Floyd protests around town, positioning the shows at the nexus of the sociopolitical chaos that defined last year.
With so many moving parts, Chappelle was smart to hire filmmakers who know what they’re doing. The comedian tapped his Ohio neighbors, “American Factory” Oscar winners Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, to direct. The result is much more than your average concert documentary, and instead uses the shows as a conduit for exploring the resilience of small-town America in the midst of an existential crisis.
Few knew what to expect ahead of the premiere, which served as 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 hold their reviews until the TBD release, it was hard to tell if Chappelle was trying to keep a lid on some explosive material or if the movie’s recent production meant that the screening was technically a work-in-progress.
However, with its rousing blend of A-list performances and communal resilience, “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place” amounts to a first-rate pandemic survival story, as well as one of the most satisfying movies in recent memory about the travails of funny people in trying times. Reichert and Bognar place almost as much focus on local business owners and activists as Chappelle himself, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to sustain his creative network serves as an absorbing emotional foundation. Chappelle’s comedy work tends to surface on Netflix, which also released “American Factory,” and the streamer does seem like a natural home for this new project. Whoever takes on the movie will have a unique opportunity to tap into Chappelle’s devout fan base while reaching other audiences more intrigued by the larger premise.
Just as he did with Michel Gondry for the dazzling 2005 Brooklyn concert movie “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” in 2005, Chappelle tracked down filmmakers whose sensibilities reflected his larger goals. After the screening, Chappelle saluted Reichert and Bognar, whose work on the Ohio-set “American Factory” benefited from his endorsement when the movie was on its awards season trajectory in 2019. “I knocked on their door,” he said, “the same way Black people do when they’re having a barbecue.”
Reichert, who juggled many of the on-camera interviews throughout the movie, said in her introduction to the screening that 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 the minds, as it allows Chappelle’s handpicked comedy showcases to shine alongside the directors’ nuanced look at the town’s fragile economy. (Despite some backlash from dyspeptic neighbors, Chappelle’s shows ultimately generated $9 million for the region.)
Their cameras seem to capture every side of the dramatic summer, including the efforts of a kooky zoning inspector to shut down the events and cornfield owner Steve Wirrig recurring attempts to keep them going, as well as safety measures for the shows that include a few harrowing test results. The movie also has plenty of famous faces in candid backroom moments, enjoying the opportunity to explore the comedians backyard (many of them spend their downtime kayaking on a nearby river). It’s especially heartening to watch Chappelle step into mentorship mode for many of his performers, as he dispenses advice to Mo Amer about his new autobiographical Netflix series and helps Michelle Wolf reveal more about her personal life onstage. Wolf, who moved in with Chappelle and his family during the pandemic, provides as an especially poignant subplot in which she struggles to understand her future.
Yet anyone looking for pure comic gems won’t be let down. As the filmmakers cut between backroom chatter and performances, the stage antics range from Chris Rock Facetiming with a befuddled Kevin Hart to Chappelle muttering about how his pal Donnell Rawlings is “the king of too soon” while the boisterous comic shouts to the crowd, “Protest head is the shit!” There’s a wry Jon Stewart beaming over what appears to be his first genuine interaction with other creative people in months, and poet Amir Sulaiman performing an empowering rendition of “We Must Win” to a teary-eyed crowd. (Afterward, Chappelle acknowledges the heavy mood with his usual bite: “Well, all you white folks feel guilty now.”)
As “David Chappelle: This Time This Place” explains, the comedian derived his activist spirit from his scholarly father, who “created a context for art.” The movie plays like an extension of that tendency, right down to the utopian energy of a July 4th celebration rife with symbolic connotations about partying 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 a bespectacled JR and Don Cheadle) took in the spectacle.
After all that time onscreen, Chappelle didn’t seem too keen on spending much time onstage himself, but he relished the opportunity to get the party started. “For a comedian, the idea of no audience is maddening,” he says in the documentary. Its memorable first screening confirmed that the audience is still there, ready for more.