Rize Above

David LaChapelle captures South Central L.A.'s clown-dance craze

The expression "thugged out" always seemed inadequate to describe the styles coming out of poor, black neighborhoods, where so many kids dress or look hard as a matter of survival. Used by sometime Minneapolis rapper Yukmouth for a 1998 track title, the phrase seeped into the modern vernacular as shorthand for all things African American and scary. Really, it's a racially coded variation on the put-down "country," and you can sense it behind the ironically thrown gang sign, the doo rag as Halloween costume, and the way most white fans of crunk and 50 Cent never set foot in a party that's "straight hood," whether or not actual thugs show up.

Truth is, ghetto hip-hop events are as creative as their "bohemian," old-school-revering counterparts. For one thing, kids dance. For another, the dance styles change so fast, and stay so far below the rap-video radar, that a film like Rize, the new documentary about "krumping" in South Central Los Angeles, can arrive with the force of revelation.

The picture opens with a disclaimer in the titles: "The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way." Which answers the first question you might have for director David LaChapelle, while street dancers onscreen gyrate faster than seems humanly possible. Blame your skepticism on Morgan Susser's crisp digital videography, which gives the rapid movements a strobed appearance in artificial light. (I kept trying to catch onlookers in the background chewing gum too fast, but the dancers are the only ones moving in Buster Keaton gear.)

Sane krump posse: A young member of the 'Rize' troupe
Lions Gate
Sane krump posse: A young member of the 'Rize' troupe

Then again, once you accept the footage as genuine, your second question might be: Does krumping exist when the camera's not on? Before you know what you're watching, bodies on basketball courts are attaching themselves to each other with their legs. Dancers are simulating beatdowns and rough sex. One move is common to different styles, but a source of endless variation: A dancer vibrates her ass on bended legs, and wildly chops her forearms into a blur, as if trying to shake off a grease fire. Krumping represents the shock of the new-yet-familiar. It looks like a culmination of every other L.A. style that changed the way people dance, from the Campbellock to slam dancing--another catharsis on pavement.

Then there's the clown makeup. LaChapelle traces the roots of krumping to hip-hop clown-dancing--you read that right. The husky, candidly insecure Tommy the Clown (Tommy Johnson) applies face paint for the camera, explaining that he started "clowning" at children's birthday parties in response to the Rodney King riots. (The film opens with footage of L.A. ablaze in '65 and '92, presenting everything that follows as marked by these events.) For viewers who suspect they're being had (This is Spinal Clown?), Tommy turns out to be another shock of the familiar new. Circus clowns have been a source of weird comic dissonance for so long--see Insane Clown Posse, Krusty the Clown, or Julianne Moore's clown-sex scene in The Ladies Man--that taking a guy in a rainbow Afro at face value seems almost radical. But Tommy puts kids at ease because he's so human, and he teaches them his moves. The story of why he does what he does is the only narrative thread in Rize, which quickly pans out to the trend he helped inspire (there are some 50 competitive clown crews), and frames krumping as an alternative to joining the Bloods or the Crips.

LaChapelle shot his clowns over a period of years, though you wouldn't know it from the final film. Rize is a visceral tribute, not a biography. It feels like a blown-out version of the director's 2004 short Krumped (original title: Clowns in the Hood), expanded to 84 minutes with a sequence documenting a Clowns-vs.-Krumpers dance-off, and a rap-video coda showing a few oiled-up krumpers in slo-mo, dancing against a blue sky to the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day." Because these shimmering bodies resemble LaChapelle's music videos for Britney, Christina, and other big first names, the movie has been called a slick advertisement for its subculture--which, of course, it is. The fashion photographer in LaChapelle knows enough to keep the camera running when Tommy suffers a personal blow, abandoning his pose to break down in non-clown tears. But LaChapelle's instincts aren't journalistic: When he drops Leni Riefenstahl footage of Nuba tribesmen alongside Compton's modern-day dance rituals, paralleling the painted faces and aggressive body moving, he offers no other explanation than one dancer's assertion: "We didn't have to go to school for this. It was already implanted in us from birth."

Critic Armond White has already crowned our white director with a safari hat in the New York Press, dubbing his spectacle minstrelsy: "When Tommy's kids put on clown's white-face and then shake themselves into conniptions, it doesn't suggest tribalism but a Ku Klux Klan fantasy. They jiggle violently, like death-row inmates being electrocuted." That bit of amazing multiple projection aside, the warmth between krumpers should be obvious in their physical contact--the way one young boy at the big competition isn't so much snatched up by his older buddies as absorbed vertically. The proud swagger of Miss Prissy, to take the most entertaining example, is both infectious and emblematic. The enthusiasm of dancers interrupting one another to explain how krumping came from "stripper dancing" is easily recognizable as the excitement of people being interviewed for the first time.

There's a similar electric crackle in the music of Flii Stylz, the Richmond, California, choreographer who raps half the songs on the soundtrack. The title chorus consists of nothing more than a shotgun cock-and-blast, and the repeated phrase: "Rize--that's my hook!" For the thugged out, here's your hook.

 
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