Rize

David LaChapelle's “Rize” examines the grassroots phenomenon of the “krump” subculture in Los Angeles, a form of acrobatic dancing performed in clown makeup. He shows that after its beginning as entertainment for children's parties, “krumping” evolved into a widespread activity, often functioning as an alternative to gang membership, with dozens of local competing groups.

LaChapelle, a fashion photographer who has made several shorts, seeks out the origins of two interrelated dance movements, clowning and krumping, which developed after the 1992 race riots. In fact, some of the dances are directly related to the Rodney King beating, which precipitated the riots. In one, we see a dancers receiving mock pummeling from the others, and it's hard not to feel the performers' rage, frustration, and pain.

LaChapelle decided to chronicle the krumping movement after a visit to Tommy the Clown's Dance Academy in South Central. A former gang member and drug dealer, Tommy teaches his clowning and dancing techniques to the ghetto kids; we see them learning to “clown,” paint their faces, and entertain crowds with their dances. When LaChapelle found out about their destitute lives, the dance became all the more important to record and he decided to frame the work with quotes from Martin Luther King.

The feature-length “Rize” originated as a short documentary, “Krumped,” aiming to spark interest from distributors. After showing at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, it generated interest among distributors and producers but they wanted a say over the film. Refusing to give up creative control, La Chapelle decided to finance the film, which cost less than one million dollars.

“Krumping” is more than just a subculture; it's an alternative to gang membership and a form of expression against the materialistic, more mainstream hip-hop. According to Tommy the Clown (aka Tom Johnson), who has become something of a “ghetto celeb,” the clowning stemmed as part of a scheme to turn his life around and bring positive messages to the local kids.

Tommy says: “You know how vital dancing was in the old days. I just brought it back with more makeup.” Some of Tommy's students took their dancing to a new level, creating krumping. The difference between the two forms seems to be based on the level of aggression; Krumping appears to be more violent. Both krumping and clowning are erotically charged; krumpers developed a stripper dance, which is practiced by young men and women.

Since the form is about individual expression, there's a good deal of variability, ranging from naturally gifted kids to trained athlete-like dancers to skillful performers. The docu's most compelling parts are the kids' personal stories, such as that by a troubled kid named “Tight Eyez.” All the dancers are aware that in richer, more educated neighborhoods, there are tap and ballet studios and performing arts academies, but there's nothing like that for them, hence the need for krumping and clowning.

Also missing is the kids' perception of their own dancing. A dancer named Dragon holds that “this is not a trend,” but we don't find out what it is to him. LaChapelle gives the kids a stagew to express themselves but doesn't probe much beneath the surface. Ands since there are numerous groups, a whole hierarchy has evolved. Hence, for some krumpers, Tommy and his Clowns have become the Establishment.

LaChapelle lets the kids and their stories speak for themselves, but his docu leaves many intriguing issues unexplored. In one segment, we see a girl named Miss Prissy go to a Hollywood studio, but we never find out if she has decided to become a pro.

You could fault LaChapelle for not offering other versions, but it seems that his goal was to focus on personal testimony and street level reportage, rather than provide a broader and more critical historical context. As a director, he looks at the colorful, exotic spectacle from the outside, failing to delve more critically and deeply into his fascinating topic. Even so, he offers a riveting glimpse at frantic movements that barely conceal the anger and violence in them.
LaChapelle is quoted in the press notes as saying: “South Central is like another country, it's the other United States. It's a Third World country within our own borders.” Yet his docu, which is a product of two years of hard, obsessively work, shows that in a place where one expects to find nothing but hopelessness, there is a vibrant community with energy and even hope.

Postscript

Lions Gate distributed the film, but despite decent reviews, the movie grossed only $3 million at the box-office. “Rize” has been placed on a short list of films by the Academy's Documentary Branch. The five final nominees will be announced on January 31.