Against Poverty's Backdrop, a Burning Desire to Dance
June 24, 2005
"This movie is, among other things, a celebration...In addition to inventing a new form of dancing and a new competitive enterprise, they have found family, community, and in more than a few cases, religious faith. What more could you want in a movie?"
"Rize," the new documentary directed by the fashion photographer David LaChapelle, begins with an unusual disclaimer: "The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way."
The reason for such reassurance soon becomes clear. Twenty-four frames per second, the rate at which film traditionally moves through a camera - and the speed at which, according to Jean-Luc Godard, cinema discloses the truth - seems too sluggish for Mr. LaChapelle's purpose, which is to record a form of dance that flourishes in some African-American neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles.
Called "clowning" or "krumping" - the terms refer to distinct but related styles - this kind of dancing is fierce, fast and frenetic, turning its practitioners into whirlwinds of flying limbs. Part of the pleasure of watching "Rize" is the sheer astonishment at their performances, which are shot and edited cleanly, with the focus on dance rather than movie-making technique.
Sometimes the dancers appear to have been possessed by angry spirits or set on fire, which in a sense they have been. This movie is, among other things, a celebration of the daemon of creative discipline and of the burning need for self-expression, community and pride.
That, at any rate, is how the clowners and krumpers describe what they do, and Mr. LaChapelle wisely lets them do most of the talking, rather than stepping in to interpret their experiences for us. He begins with images of urban upheaval - the Watts riots of 1965 and the Rodney King disturbances 27 years later - to establish that krumping is an art form that has arisen against a backdrop of poverty, violence and despair. These hard facts are never far from the minds of the dancers themselves, many of whom have joined clowning and krumping groups as an alternative to gangs. In the course of the film, one dancer, a 15-year-old girl named Quinesha Dunford (known as Lil Dimples) is killed in a drive-by shooting, and "Rize" is dedicated to her memory.
It is also dedicated to the exploration of an extraordinarily lively and complex subculture, though that sociological term seems a bit limiting. If this is not culture - art, family, sport, religion, friendship - then what is? Indeed, the movie sometimes has trouble living up to the richness of its subject, or keeping up with the dances' rapid spread and evolution. You may find yourself wishing that you could know some of the characters better and see more of their lives.
But in that case, there would be less time to watch them dance. At any rate, the stories and personalities that do emerge are touching and intriguing. "Rize" is dominated by Tommy the Clown, an energetic teddy bear of a man who is not shy about proclaiming himself the father of clowning.
He is certainly a patriarchal figure, serving as mentor, role model and guide for young followers, who help him entertain at neighborhood birthday parties. A former drug dealer who turned his life around in prison, Tommy is at once evangelist and entrepreneur, a civic leader and a local celebrity in pancake makeup and a gaudily airbrushed car.
Some of his protégés have become rivals, devotees of krumping, which one dancer describes as "the raw version" of Tommy's choreography (itself based on something called "the stripper dance"). Krumping is more physically confrontational and also overtly competitive - a matter of playground showdowns that combine the athletic bravura of street basketball with the stylized face-offs of hip-hop battles.
The film's climax is a battle, organized by Tommy, at the Great Western Forum, where clowns and krumpers compete in one of the most thrilling tests of skill since the rigged rap contest at the end of "8 Mile." That moment of triumph, though, is shadowed by a senseless off-screen crime, which serves as both a cruel reality check and a reminder of why this art form - and the dignity, freedom and glory it provides - is so necessary.
"Rize" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has suggestive content and language, drug references and brief nudity.