Rize, David LaChapelle’s documentary about a burgeoning South Central Los Angeles dance culture dubbed “krumping,” follows a tried and true formula: find a sexy subculture, preferably from within a disenfranchised social strata, mold an uplifting story of struggle against adversity, and close with a sense of escape and hope. Hoop Dreams, Paris Is Burning, and Dark Days come to mind. Adhering to formula is not always a regrettable path; much of classic cinema is an exercise in exploiting rules of genre to create entertaining, populist works of art, and Rize negotiates this space with aplomb. And celebrity photographer LaChapelle is so expert at framing the visual image that he can make any culture look heavenly—as he’s done so many times in his work as a fashion photographer and video artist. Like Mark Romanek before him, he has seamlessly made the jump from commercial and art photography to directing music videos and, now, his first feature film. An ambitious artist across media, LaChapelle exhibits work in galleries and recently produced an installation for Deitch Projects in which he crafted structural interior spaces with montages of his photo and video work.
Derivative of pop-lockin’ and jungle-rave dancing, krumpin’ combines these with the sort of stripper “booty” dancing found in many hip-hop videos. It is not a wholly sui generis form of street dancing (one need only park oneself in Tompkins Square or Washington Square Park to see its cousins) but Rize treats it as such. The film focuses on Tommy Johnson, a.k.a. “Tommy the Clown,” star and emotional center of LaChapelle’s doc and self-proclaimed inventor of krumping. Tommy created what he calls “clown dancing” or “clowning” in response to the chaos and misery wrought by the 1992 Rodney King riots. Initially performed at birthday parties as a source of income and picked up by neighborhood kids for their own “clown performances,” it evolved into the considerably darker, more complex, and psychological krump dancing of disenfranchised South Central youth. Equal parts Brazilian capoeira, modern contact improvisation, and vigorous, sped up break dancing, it is a wonder to behold. A disclaimer before the film reads: “The images in this film have not been sped up in any way,” and though it comes off as hyperbole the footage is mesmerizing—the youths jerk, twist, flip, and slam their bodies with hyperintensity.
Full of aggression, those engaging in hardcore krumpin’ appear as if in a religious trance (a few of the kids claim church spirituality adds to their krumping skills). Allusions LaChapelle makes to African dance rituals are apt, though I don’t know how well a scene juxtaposing some of the kids dancing with archival African tribal footage will go over with sections of the African-American community. Some of the more raw displays of violent krumping in parking lots and back alleys, the dancers seemingly possessed, do indeed recall the voodoo trance ceremonies in Maya Deren’s Haitian film footage from the 1950s, and in particular Jean Rouch’s 1955 Les Maitres Fous (Mad Masters), which chronicled the trance ceremonies of the Hauka cult in Ghana. In Rouch’s film the colonized natives foam at the mouth as they act out the bizarre, incomprehensible rituals they observed their colonizers engage in.
Les Maitres Fous was heavily criticized by some who objected to such a depiction of Africans, and something similar might be said of LaChapelle’s characterization of South Central youth. One has obvious reservations about another “kids in the ghetto” doc from a filmmaker looking at their culture from the outside. That said, LaChapelle shows about as much tact and grace as one can shooting what is ultimately extremely charged cultural material. Rize is an inspiring film. The melodrama is ratcheted up for maximum effect—surrounded by drugs, vicious gang activity and hardship, the dance culture stands for not only an alternative but also an engaging way of life. Even the kids themselves seem aware of the roles expected of them in such a film. They might not have seen a lot of documentaries, but they’ve viewed enough reality TV to know they’re supposed to pontificate about the mysterious cultural origins of their dancing, play up all familial and neighborhood trials and tribulations, and produce as much pathos as possible. The dancing is intensely spiritual because the kids are desperate for any activity offering a possible way out of their circumstances; krumping expresses the anger and confusion of their lives. They are like the suburban punk rockers before them who fashioned underground dance clubs and chaotic mosh pits. In South Central, these same impulses become street-corner battles that channel spiritual African dance.
Fittingly, the film culminates in a citywide “Battle Zone” competition organized by Tommy the Clown at the Great Western Forum. LaChapelle shoots the proceedings with the reverence of the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. The competition is an enthralling display and you pull for the kids with all of your heart, admiring their desire to take what they’ve honed in the streets of South Central to a larger stage. LaChapelle closes with thrilling slow-motion sequences of the kids we’ve come to know dancing in picturesque locations throughout L.A. Framing these dance sequences is what LaChapelle does best, and Rize is at its strongest when it ceases trying to fashion a cultural perspective and just lets the kids dance.