Big Shoes to Fill

Photo: Courtesy of Lions Gate Films

At the start of the stunning, explosively moving new documentary Rize, a few lines of text appear onscreen. The raw film shot for this movie, we are informed, “has not been sped up in any way.” Soon, we see a bunch of young people dancing in controlled spasms, executing precise break-dancing moves with such speed and variety that you understand immediately why director David LaChapelle wanted to assure us that there was no camera trickery involved. We quickly acclimate ourselves: We’re in South Central Los Angeles, and the black youths are “krumping”—performing in an original style that combines old-school rap break dancing (including head- and hand-spinning), stiff robotic movements, and fluid chest and pelvic thrusts. Facial expressions are intense, almost deadpan; the movement itself is exhilarating, joyous. If that sounds like a contradictory collection of characteristics, well, you’ve got to see Rize, because it just gets more complicated and fascinating as it goes along.

One thing you notice right away is that many of these nonprofessional, mostly untrained dancers—street kids, most of them—are wearing aggressive slashes of bright color on their faces. And that’s where the story Rize has to tell really begins. About a decade ago, an adult named Thomas Johnson decided that having run-ins with the cops was a dead end, and he started doing something unusual: He became a clown, performing at children’s parties in full floppy-multicolored-wig-and-makeup regalia. To keep the attention of his hip-hop-raised little audiences and their parents, he started dancing in a crazy, humorous manner. Everyone finds exaggeration and absurd speed funny, so that’s what Tommy the Clown, as he is now known, made his distinctive style.

Everyone loved him and his antics—the parties spilled out into the street—and an odd thing happened: Teens and pre-teens, instead of finding Tommy’s antics foolish, began to imitate him, but on their own terms. Pretty soon, Tommy had enlisted a bunch of them in his own “Clown Academy,” instructing them on how to do parties themselves. He was growing the business, but he was also growing a subculture. The kids found “krumping” (I’d guess the derivation is some combination of clowning, crunk music, and jumping), with its competitive edge (dancers gather in a circle to watch a solo or pair of performers show off new moves), its money-making element, and its opportunity to band together out of kinship, to be a viable alternative to the gangs. And in South Central L.A., where gangs deal death, not mirth, this was a remarkable development. The star performers took on names like Tight Eyez and Miss Prissy and Swoop. Joining in became a third alternative, as the mother of one young krumper explains succinctly: “Bloods, Crips … no! Clowns!”

LaChapelle began documenting this scene three years ago. (An early version of Rize, a short film called Krumped, played the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.) A photographer and music-video director, LaChapelle has the good sense not to impose voice-over narration—he lets Tommy and the krumpers tell their own story.

Krumping is now a creative competitive sport; Rize climaxes with a sort of krump-off held in 2003 at the Great Western Forum sports arena, where the volume of cheers determines which clown-faced troupe wins. But the idea that krumping could sweep the nation isn’t the one that inspires Rize’s best moments. Rather, it’s the way the camera stays planted while a succession of krumpers, their faces adorned in fierce-looking primary colors—more war-paint than clown makeup—do jolting wriggles that leave their friends and competitors literally slack-jawed, then whooping and cheering. “Every day, the style changes,” someone remarks—which is one reason why, by the way, I don’t think krumping will be easily co-opted. Anything put in a commercial will be out of date two weeks later.

It’s the way one person describes krumping as “ghetto ballet” and another says the impetus to get through life in this neighborhood is “You redeem it through art.” It’s the way a krumper tells the camera with grim firmness, as he stands amid the urban ruins, “What we are, are oppressed.” Krumping, for all its surface silliness, fights oppression with a painted-on smiley-face that cannot disguise dead-serious determination.

Directed by David LaChapelle.
Lions Gate Films. PG-13.

Big Shoes to Fill