In 2021, shortly after Juneteenth became a federal holiday, a poll conducted by The New York Times showed the vast majority of Americans didn’t know what the day signified. That should change in the coming years. However, it’d be a real shame if it was another holiday hijacked by the likes of The Hallmark Channel, BET, or another network looking to reduce it to folderol.
Block Party — which is billed as “the first Juneteenth family comedy” — is a pathetic excuse for a comedy and an affront to the respective holiday. Beyond being incorrect in its self-designation (the film boasts a “TV-MA” rating on BET+), it makes Tyler Perry’s worst films look like John Singleton’s “Hood trilogy.”
Try and forgive the fact that Juneteenth means desperately little to the filmmakers until it’s time for their project to have an overarching moral in the third act. Instead, recognize that the worst thing a movie can do is spend 80 minutes making you not take it seriously before asking you to do the opposite in the final ten. That is worse than miscalculated; it’s insulting.
Cut from the same cloth as the latest drivel shown on basic cable during the holiday season, Block Party revolves around Keke (Antoinette Robertson), an accomplished woman who returns to her hometown in lieu of starting a new job in Atlanta. She’s going to work for Crystal Maitland (Merle Dandridge). Who is she? It’s anybody’s guess. What brings her to the comparatively sleepy town of Grand Rapids is her grandmother, nicknamed “Gram-jam” (Margaret Avery, The Color Purple), is in the hospital, recovering from a car accident.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time, as Gram-jam is in the middle of organizing the annual “Summer Sizzle” block party. Despite the fact that dementia has taken a toll on her body and mind, she’s committed to throwing the party. Keke finds herself coerced into delaying the start of her new job in favor of throwing Summer Sizzle, even though sponsors, music acts, and, most importantly, funding are nowhere to be found.
Block Party‘s most ambitious move is confining all these hurdles into a hasty 15 minutes. The bulk of the movie is the block party itself. Keke takes out $15,000 of her own money to pay for the permits. She can’t get renowned DJ “Dee Nice” to perform, so instead she settles for the local “Dee Nutz,” who has one of the movie’s funniest bits when he’s handed a sheet full of sponsors at the 11th hour and spends several minutes reading them off to the crowd. Take it from a radio DJ, that happens more than you think.
Block Party is mostly focused on bad stereotypes and even more atrocious attempts at comedy. Brad William Henke is given a role so ignominious, I’d recommend he leave it off his resume. He plays Buddy Frank, a contemptible reverse mortgage lender and the movie’s token white guy. In his introductory scene, he brings coffee to a local business, greeting the locals by saying, “I’m just a simple white boy trying to be neighborly. Especially so close to Juneteenth. Can I get a witness?!” At another point, he exits a scene by telling Keke and her friends that their lives matter. You couldn’t program a bot to recite lines as ludicrously wrongheaded.
Alas, Block Party is 90 minutes of wrongheadedness. A movie that squanders its own tagline by relegating Juneteenth to serving as the backdrop for situational comedy, crass jokes, rampant ignorance, and paper-thin characterization. Faizon Love might turn in the most spirited performance as a city worker who is more concerned about $30 scratch-offs than he is about anything happening in the area. Indeed, he’s a caricature, but a funny one at that. Writers Krista Suh and Matt Allen would’ve done well to conjure up their own story instead of plugging one into a tired, TV movie template.
There will come a time that a movie centered around Juneteenth will receive widespread recognition and deserved acclaim. That film will make the day’s significance of the emancipation of the slaves in America more than a half-hearted monologue in the finale. Here’s hoping Block Party is the worst of its bunch, in the meantime.
NOTE: Block Party is now streaming exclusively on BET+.
Starring: Antoinette Robertson, Margaret Avery, Merle Dandrige, Golden Brooks, Brad William Henke, Birgundi Baker, Charlyne Yi, Gary Anthony Williams, and Faizon Love. Directed by: Dawn Wilkinson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!