‘Block Party’ Film Review: Juneteenth Celebration Leads to Ambitious but Erratic Comedy

·5 min read
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In 2021, Juneteenth, the celebration of the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans, was established as a federal holiday, and with new holidays to celebrate, there are new opportunities for holiday movies, of course. From director Dawn Wilkinson (“A Nashville Christmas Carol”) and writers Matt Allen (“Mighty Oak”), Lisa Mathis and Krista Suh, comes “Block Party,” a summer family comedy that’s ostensibly themed around Juneteenth.

The connection to Juneteenth feels tenuous at best, as characters continually name-check the holiday but never stop to explain or discuss the meaning of the celebration. The script assumes that the audience is familiar with the holiday and its importance, which is perhaps a heartening sign that Juneteenth doesn’t need to be explained anymore, but most great holiday films at least touch on the significant themes of the holiday (e.g. “the true meaning of Christmas”).

“Block Party” feels strangely divorced from what Juneteenth actually signifies, until a vague eleventh-hour speech about the importance of community and taking care of each other.

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The plot of “Block Party” is ripped from the Hallmark/Lifetime playbook: a high-achieving young woman — in this case, recent Harvard grad Keke (Antoinette Robertson, Netflix’s “Dear White People”) — returns to her hometown and discovers what’s truly important in life. Keke is about to start a new job in Atlanta, working for someone named “THE Crystal Maitland” (again, the script does not explain the who or the what or the why of Crystal Maitland until the very end of the film, and even then it is unclear at best), and while she seems to be happy about the new chapter, singing and dancing while unpacking her apartment, she rushes home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for one night after her beloved grandmother “Gramjam” (Margaret Avery, “The Color Purple”) is hospitalized after a car accident.

The spunky Gramjam is the heart and soul, and main organizer, of the community’s annual block party, Summer Sizzle, though as dementia has set in, it’s taken a toll on her abilities. She pleads with Keke to stay and organize the Summer Sizzle, despite the protestations of Keke’s ruthlessly ambitious, gun-toting mother Tasha (Golden Brooks, “Girlfriends”). Thanks to a memory montage of dancing with her Gramjam to the Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam hit “Head to Toe,” Keke decides to blow off her first week of work to plan the Summer Sizzle, despite the lack of money, sponsors, permits and music acts. Will she pull it off?

If you’ve seen any film before, ever, you know she will, but “Block Party” surprisingly squishes all of the preparation challenges into about 10 minutes. After paying the fire department $15,000 of her own money for permits, and taking a road trip to Detroit to line up a DJ, the Summer Sizzle mysteriously and magically comes together, and the party kicks off halfway through the film’s 90-minute running time, so that all the film’s major conflicts can unfold during the events of the day.

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During the block party, Keke will reconnect with her ex, Will (Terayle Hill, “Love, Simon”), and once and for all prove to her rival cousin Eboni (Birgundi Baker, “The Chi”) that she’s fun. She and her best friend Alice (Charlyne Yi, “Steven Universe”) will discover that the white, culturally-appropriating Buddy Frank (Brad William Henke, “Orange Is the New Black”) is targeting elders in the community with predatory mortgages, and will ultimately stage a sting to expose him. Keke and her mother and grandmother will come together as a family, letting bygones be bygones, and her boss, The Crystal Maitland (Merle Dandridge, “Station 19”) will unexpectedly show up, putting Keke’s fancy new job in jeopardy.

The importance of celebrating Black communities in a joyful way in media cannot be overstated, and “Block Party” fits neatly into the gap between more serious, social-issue films, and something like the melodrama of Tyler Perry’s oeuvre. It’s a cute, lightweight film without much heft to it, but the comedy doesn’t hit and the pacing is bizarre. Reactions are frequently delayed and outsize, the tensions exaggerated. “Block Party” is overly reliant on the edit to bring the energy and to do some of the narrative heavy-lifting, utilizing montages, flashbacks, and music cues. But within each scene, the energy is stilted and awkward, while the transitions between scenes lack narrative connective tissue.

Much of the comedy is derived from the foolishness of white people, and it is astutely observed, if a bit blunt. There’s Buddy’s nefarious appropriation of “the culture” for his own profit, as well as a white woman with an acoustic guitar crooning covers of hip-hop songs (but who is she and where did she come from?), which is also exploitative appropriation. Then there’s the overzealous Fire Marshall Joy (Carmella Riley) with an asymmetrical haircut who keeps calling herself “Karen” and trying to shut down the party for her own amusement. These characters are played for laughs, and it’s funny because it’s true, if somewhat dark. Unfortunately, these clownish characters are the only ones who ring true in the film.

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It’s hard to buy that the smart, hard-working Keke would skip out on a coveted new job in order to plan a summer block party for her grandmother, risking a huge amount of her own money in the process. She pulls it off, just barely, thanks to her friends and family, but still manages to impress her boss, who has inexplicably flown from Atlanta to Michigan to surprise her. If there was any characterization or motivation written for Keke, or appropriate stakes, it may have been easier to follow her journey, but she’s an inconsistently written character, and not up to the talents of Robertson, who is a compelling screen presence.

“Block Party” is a lightweight comedy that frustrates because there’s the potential for it to be great, to resonate beyond its blandly formulaic charms. The characters are all over the place, the jokes rarely land and there’s no sense of place, despite the large title cards announcing where we are. While the film finally drives home its message of community togetherness and mutual care at the last minute, the preceding 89 are unfortunately disappointing.

“Block Party” opens in U.S. theaters June 8 and streams on BET and BET+ June 16.