In a spectacular documentary called “Rize,” the photographer and music-video director David LaChapelle celebrates an inner-city dance movement that began a decade ago as Clowning and is now called Krumping. (In the words of one dancer, it’s “ghetto ballet.”) Bozo the Clown would gape, and weep.
The movie opens with a useful disclaimer: “The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way.” Human bodies don’t usually move with the wild abandon and muscular grace seen here, the here being mainly South Central Los Angeles and the nearby city of Inglewood. It looks like the laws of gravity, and conversation of energy, have been suspended. But “Rize” – the title derives from the “rise up” phrase in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech – goes back to the phenomenon’s roots, and shows what drives the dancers to dance as they do.
The movement started around the time of the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, when a previously wayward young man named Thomas Johnson reinvented himself as Tommy the Clown and established an institution called Tommy’s Hip Hop Clown Academy. It’s almost surreal to see Tommy in full regalia – clown white, plus patches of red and black over his round, brown, ebullient face – speaking of his checkered past as a drug dealer. But it’s moving to hear others talk about his role as a community leader who taught kids to dance, rather than fight.
Dancing quickly took precedence over conventional clowning. The makeup amounted to gang markings, but the gangs were benign. Fifty or more clown groups sprung up as the movement gained force, and kids vented their energy through a supercharged and competitive dance form. “The style changes every day,” one dancer says. “Every day.”
Still there’s a common denominator of exultant, almost dervishy gyration, along with an acting-out of aggression that can bear a startling resemblance to street fighting. And to primitive rituals: Mr. LaChapelle intercuts shots of Krumpers in Los Angeles with stock footage of African tribal ceremonies, and, sure enough, many of the moves are remarkably similar. I felt some initial uneasiness about those parallelisms, but “Rize” doesn’t try to turn beautiful black bodies into symbols of some Jungian life force. What’s so wonderful about the film – even though it’s longer than it should be – is its revelation of individual kids behind the gaudy masks.
Off-stage, or off-street, they are kids like any others, though strikingly thoughtful when it comes to discussing their art. But their art suffers from severe limits as a defense against mad, random violence that surrounds them. Bursting joy and throbbing with music, “Rize” has a tragic dimension too. When you see the clown cry, you’ll be with him all the way.
By Joe Morgenstern