American ghetto culture has for a long time been the source of inspiration and fascination with taste makers working in the mainstream. Take the example of Madonna, who made her career and kept her street cred by occasionally ‘mainstreaming’ urban dance and style subcultures. She did that with vogueing and more recently used a street dance style called Krumping in her video for Hung Up. Not coincidentally, the video was directed by David LaChapelle, the director of Rize, a documentary that credits itself with having discovered the style.
LaChappele’s documentary arrives on the big screen with comparisons to previous classics such as Paris is Burning and Style Wars, but the comparisons are overblown. Although not exactly bad, it is surprisingly bland considering the subject matter. You get the feeling that LaChappele never got fully involved with the scene and never lets the subject matter reveal its full potential. It doesn’t sanitise the subject matter but never cuts deep enough either. You also wonder whether Krumping really is the ‘phenomenon’ that the filmmakers hype it up to be.
Krumping is a hyper-energetic form of dancing adopted by the kids in South Central, Los Angeles as a way out of a life of crime. The dancers jerk their bodies so fast and cathartically that they resemble the participants in Haitian voodoo rituals possessed by a spirit. LaChapelle doesn’t want us to miss this so he juxtaposes imagery of Nabu tribe members getting ready for fight, painting their bodies etc with footage of the LA kids doing something similar. But he does it in such an obvious way that the mini-thesis he tries to postulate visually looks forced and obvious.
The ‘movement’ started when Tommy Johnson, also known as Tommy the Clown, created the style as a response to the 1992 Rodney King Riots and named it "clowning", which then morphed into the so-called Krumping. It’s a moving story of social struggle in the underbelly of the American dream. We also get to know some of the key individuals in Tommy’s posse, their families and their dreams. One of the highlights of the films is a stadium event where ‘rival’ gangs meet to outdance each other onstage to a rapturous audience, with Tommy working as a kind of court jester in a rainbow clown outfit. The energy of the place is almost palpable and the aftermath of the event is also one of the good verity moments in Rize.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with post-modern cultural appropriation per se. Subcultures tend to grow out of their original ethos in their crave for attention and that attention will be bigger if a mainstream name lends their hand. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: the ghetto makes some money and the already-famous gets some much-needed hip cachet.
But Rize is a patchy film that could do without the final sequence that looks almost like a promo clip for LaChapelles’s unmistakable style. This is part of the problem. He seems too tempted to dress the film in the Technicolor fantasy world that made his pictures famous and which certainly works for the fashion world. However, in a documentary, style over substance is not necessarily the most adequate method to record reality.
Rize is released in the UK on 30/12/05