City Paper is not for tourists
Like the Maya Angelou poem that helped inspire it, Rize depicts African-Americans fighting against bone-crushing odds. Also like the poem, David LaChapelle’s new documentary suggests dancing as a means to overcome. But here’s a key difference: Rize includes one scary-ass clown. The 85-minute film begins with the story of Tommy “the Clown” Johnson, an ex-con-turned-children’s-entertainer whose birthday-party dance routines sparked a craze among the kids of South Central Los Angeles. Johnson developed his “clowning” as a response to the Rodney King riots, and it’s easy to see why people are moved by him: Rainbow-wigged, white-faced, and apparently able to move just about every part of his body at once, the big guy is an awesome physical presence. His young protégés soon develop his moves into a fast-paced, athletic dance they call “krumping”—a combination of heart-thumping acrobatics and dizzying movements inspired by African tribal rituals, old-school hiphop, and even the King beating itself. The film charts the dance’s progression into a means by which many kids in South Central avoid gang life and violence, channeling into krumping a fierce sense of competition and drawing from it a spectacular emotional release. LaChapelle, better known for celebrity photography and pop-music videos, assembles Rize with a slickly Hollywood eye. The many montages of flailing limbs are expertly synched to a terrific soundtrack (including Dizzee Rascal and Lauryn Hill) and a strong original score—though it’s a shame that the musical selection rarely gives us the chance to find out what the clowns and krumpers are actually dancing to. The director also skimps a little on the larger context, but the real power of Rize is in neither the visuals nor the story. It’s in the dancers themselves, from the whip-smart Dragon, who, to the white filmmaker, describes krumping as a “ghetto ballet…as valid as your ballet and your waltz,” to the fierce Miss Prissy, who marvels that people in Hollywood can’t conceive of residing in South Central: “It’s not dangerous,” she says. “It’s life!” By focusing on kids whose charisma leaps right off the screen, LaChapelle captures a humanity that transcends even the most inspirational of trappings. These are kids who know firsthand what it means to face long odds, and still they rise—even over a Maya Angelou poem.