There are certain subjects that any documentary filmmaker worth his salt has to acknowledge up front as surefire winners. Somewhere near the top of the list must rest, "Clowns go all-out to determine who's the best hip-hop dancer." While that description seems to portend some bizarre hybrid of Shakes the Clown and Krush Groove, the actual product David LaChapelle's Rize is an urban portrait as stirring as it is novel.
If you're a resident of South Central Los Angeles, you may see nothing outré about honest-to-goodness clowns all done up in Stein's whiteface and the occasional rainbow fright wig segregating themselves into groups and taking to the sidewalk to perform furious dances that are the utmost in personal and cultural expression. As the movie informs us, there are more than 50 such squads in today's L.A., operating as friendly (to a point) rivals. Their godfather/patron saint is Tommy the Clown, a former drug dealer who's turned his life around and now rules the kids'-party circuit with street-smart jokes and dynamic steps executed by a legion of subordinates. As beneficent as Damon Wayans' long-ago Homey D. Clown was short-tempered, Tommy is apparently well-loved by kids and parents alike, who credit his storefront academy of clowning and dance with providing a healthy, positive outlet for young followers who could just as easily be learning their way around a gat. It's like the 4-H Club with more sweat and a booming bass.
But like many visionary gurus, Tommy has had to weather the defection of former disciples, whose offshoot groups proclaim themselves even more skilled at practicing the vigorous art of "krumpin'" the convulsive dancing that is their chosen mode of catharsis. It's a spontaneous yet consensually evolving form of movement that's bound to strike some observers as borderline unwholesome. Only slightly less violent than slam dancing, it also relies on suggestive moves like the so-called stripper dance though the participants interviewed seem all but oblivious to the sexual connotations of the term. Director LaChapelle wisely downplays potential disapproval by showing how krumping is informed by African tribal rituals and more immediate experiential input like the Rodney King beatdown. (Talk about taking back the night.)
The movie can be vague in its definitions: When the simmering competition between Tommy and his progeny finds its outlet in a dance-off at the Great Western Forum, the scorecard proclaims the contest as one of "clowns vs. krumpers." Up until that point, one could easily have assumed that every clown is a krumper and every krumper a clown. Some of this confusion may be viewer-specific personally, I'm still not certain I'm using the word "crunk" properly but a little more clarity would have helped to bring the movie's message of physical emancipation to the masses it's clearly meant to impress.
LaChapelle, a celebrity photographer by trade, occasionally lets his preoccupation with visuals run away with him, preferring repetitive shots of muscular, heaving bodies to uniformly rigorous backstories. But he's fostered incredible trust with his subjects, who yuk it up and bare their souls in front of his camera as if he were one of their own an intimacy that comes in handy as the film approaches a climax that's far from triumphant (a welcome deviation from the standard "competition doc" template). If you don't see the sincerity, pathos and joy in the movie they've all made together, your krumpness is seriously suspect.