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Chappelle throws a jubilant 'Block Party'

Two years ago on a gray September day, the comedian Dave Chappelle held a noon-to-night concert in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Scores of New Yorkers were bused in from Manhattan and had no idea where they were going -- they didn't care. Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, the Roots, Common, Big Daddy Kane, and Talib Kweli were among those who performed in the wind and rain. The next day the blogs, and later the magazines, were in a tizzy over the Fugees, who had recovered from Lauryn Hill's nervous breakdown and Pras and Wyclef Jean's spatting to consummate a reunion.

Being there must have been special. But watching this all happen in ''Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is better. For one thing, you won't get wet. For another, Michel Gondry, the music-video magician and director of ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," was on the scene with a camera crew. The movie they've assembled is in the vein of 1973's ''Wattstax," but it's much more than a concert documentary. It's a jubilant, civic-minded lollapalooza.

Yes, each performance is more transcendent than the last. Badu literally flips her Afro wig, then surfs the crowd. Dead Prez confirms that it's as crucial as Public Enemy, but in double time. Hill is as willowy-fabulous as 1970s Diana Ross. (When Pras says hearing her sing makes him want to cry, all I could think after seeing her do a luscious ''Killing Me Softly" was ''Me, too!") And had there been a house that day, Jill Scott would have brought it down.

But the more indelible contributions to the film are from the so-called little people.

The movie is indeed a block party, that great, seemingly bygone Saturday event when a street shuts down to celebrate itself. And because it is a block party, the artists in Chappelle's platinum hip-hop-R&B lineup are but a few stars in a neighborhood constellation that includes less famous folk. The community here is synthetic insofar as some of its members come from the workaday Dayton, Ohio, region, where Chappelle still lives; he goes back to cajole his neighbors to come east for his weekend shindig. But it's a community nonetheless. We can feel the love.

On the streets of Dayton, Chappelle hands out Willy Wonka-style golden tickets good for a round-trip bus ride to the show and a hotel stay, choosing black people and white people alike. This includes the woman who runs a local corner store and an affable pair of teenage Chappelle fans who tell Gondry they decided not to beat up a racist because the ensuing trouble wouldn't have been worth missing the party. Watching the Daytonites, most of whom didn't know each other before this invitation, asleep on the New York-bound bus is a wonderful moment of peace and harmony.

In Ohio, Chappelle, who pulled all this off before last year's notorious breakdown, also stumbles upon the Central State University marching band. His discovery leads to the happy moment when the kids find out they're going to New York. They explode with surprise. And during their street procession backing Kanye West on ''Jesus Walks," the drum line and the majorettes seem more glamorous than the best-selling rapper playing their marshal. They know they're as good at their job as West is at his.

And that's the power of this movie. This is a black America that the music videos and movies don't show but eagerly sell to. The kids in that band and the two dudes who take a break from fighting racism are people, with ideas, aspirations, and personalities. They get to go backstage and they seem star-struck, but they also seem relieved to have their suspicions confirmed that the world is bigger than Ohio.

After we see the Fugees perform, Wyclef talks to a handful of the CSU students about what they'd do if they ran the country. One girl says she'd create more scholarships. Then they try joining him on the chorus of his song ''President," which hadn't hit the radio yet. The moment feels like one of the classroom sessions from Lauryn Hill's solo record. It's piercing. I can't remember the last time someone in a movie bothered to ask a black girl what she thought about much of anything.

''Block Party" would play as an exquisite chaser to the tragic realism in Spike Lee's community masterpiece ''Do the Right Thing," which is also set in Bed-Stuy and, in its own way, is a social musical. ''Block Party" is the more rambling movie. Besides the priceless backstage moments are those when Gondry follows Chappelle as he makes his way around Bed-Stuy, talking, for instance, to the ancient owners of the amazing ruin that overlooks the block where the party is scheduled to be. (Chappelle calls the place a crack house. But it's the most Dickensian of crack houses.) He even visits the day-care center that the Notorious B.I.G. attended and that doubles as the concert's greenroom.

All these sequences are scattered among the concert performances. This structure has a great democratizing effect. For one day, there doesn't appear to be any useful difference between the haves and the have-nots -- between Jill Scott; the girl who, as president, would order up more scholarships; and the serious principal who walks Chappelle around her school. When Chappelle exclaims, ''We shook up the world! We shook up the world!" it doesn't feel like an overstatement at all.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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