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Rize

Director: David LaChapelle
Cast: Tommy the Clown, Larry, Dragon, Swoop, Daisy, La Nina, Lil Tommy, Lil C, Tight Eyez, Miss Prissy

(Lions Gate; US theatrical: 24 Jun 2005; 2005)

Ghetto Celebrity

“This is our neighborhood. This is where we grew up. We managed to grow from these ashes. And this is where we still live.” Rize begins with images of L.A. in turmoil and transition: the 1965 Watts riots, Martin Luther King, Jr. on the march, rousing gospel singers juxtaposed with tanks in the streets and cops in riot gear, the 1992 uprising. From this pile of trouble, the documentary argues, emerged a remarkable dance subculture, krump.


Vibrant, insistent, and stunningly athletic, krump is all spastic-seeming gyrations, choreographed aggression, and startling velocity; a note at the start of testifies that no footage has been “speeded up in any way,” underscoring just how unbelievably fast and fabulous these moves can be. Indeed, the film’s strongest element is its vivid visuals—the bodies are dynamic, the skin glistening, the costumes clownish, and the faces painted into stark, self-asserting abstractions.


At the forefront of krump is Tommy the Clown (born Tommy Johnston), the “ghetto celebrity” credited here with originating the style in his performances at children’s birthday parties during the 1990s. As his popularity increased and kids started asking how to do what he did, Tommy started his “Hip-Hop Clown Academy,” and from here, as he tells it, krump has become an alternative to gang culture. One ex-dealer confesses that “back in the day, I always lived to show off, but either you end up shot dead and killed, or you end up in jail. Thank god,” he says, “I went to jail.” And now, he’s alive, because of krump. The dance, he says, “is saving kids’ lives.” The movie supports this claim with a series of testaments by saved souls—dancers who have taken up the cause, felt inspired by the culture, committed themselves to rehearsals. “This is not a trend,” asserts one dancer. “Let me repeat: this is not a trend.” Rather, it is a “board” for those who, like Dragon, once felt like they were drowning.


Rize makes clear how easy it would be to go under in L.A. Surrounded by poverty, drugs, and violence (“Just walking down the street you can get shot for no reason, just for looking like somebody, you can get shot”), the kids who choose otherwise are up against a world that expects nothing from them but more of the same. And so, they surprise: if the birthday parties are about “making smiles where there was no smiles,” other krump venues—in particular, team competitions—grant other sorts of rewards, even aside from giant trophies and bragging rights. The winners are recognized as innovators and respected as artists, each one-on-one dance-off a crucial mini-drama, as contestants of all shapes and sizes strut from their corners and jut out their hips, then launch themselves into extraordinary, tautly controlled, wholly mesmerizing writhings.


While the competition serves as something of a climax for the documentary, the story of krump is less about such structured environments than about movement in multiple senses—from despair to hope, constraint to revelation. The urgency of this movement is visible in the film’s spurty rhythms. It offers multiple angles on sensational dance moves: low and high, slow motion and close up, fast cuts and mobile frames that can barely keep up with the performers. The film offers as well rehearsal sessions (and a discussion of the “stripper dance”—a concoction of rump shaking and pelvis thrusting, it has “everything in it”), short bursts of “daily life” on the street and in church, and talking heads (who range from earnest to wry, cocky to grateful) all exemplify krump’s wide-ranging appeal and participation.


The subculture plainly draws from hip-hop (especially break-dancing) as well as ballet, modern dance, and clowning traditions, and transgender and skateboard innovations. And like other expressions by minority communities, krump has recently entered mainstream popular culture (say, voguing, by way of Madonna and Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris Is Burning), most visibly in the form of music videos by Missy Elliot (last year’s “I’m Really Hot” and currently, “Lose Control,” which makes an entertaining connection between krump and Tommy Lee). The documentary shows, however, that krump also remains rooted in L.A., and that its purveyors are protective of its political underpinnings, the determination to speak to and for folks oppressed. As if to underline this point, during a competition, Tommy gets a phone call to find out his home has been robbed—shaken, horrified, angry, he takes solace in the children who wonder at his upset and try to soothe him.


As Tight Eyes puts it, though, stuff is just that. “We’re more valuable than a piece of jewelry or a car or any big house that anybody could buy. While Rize‘s organization is fragmented (leaving some connections unclear and some ideas undeveloped), it’s a useful introduction to krumping. Featuring extraordinary bodies and photographer LaChapelle’s signature intensity, the film is most emphatically a display of artists, as they think their way past all kinds of limits and celebrate their skills.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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