|Directed by||David LaChapelle|
Tommy the Clown
|Music by||Amy Marie Beauchamp
|Running time||86 min.|
Rize is an American documentary movie starring Lil' C, Tommy Johnson, also known as Tommy the Clown, and Miss Prissy. The documentary exposes the new dance form known as krumping which originated in the early 1990s in Los Angeles. The film was written and directed by David LaChapelle. Working alongside LaChapelle were executive producers, Ishbel Whitaker, Barry Peele, Ellen Jacobson-Clarke, Starvos Merjos, and Rebecca Skinner. Rize was produced by Lions Gate Entertainment and released in January 2005, grossing $3.3 million at the box office.
Rize is a documentary following an interview schedule of two related dancing subcultures of Los Angeles: clowning and krumping. The documentary is divided into three distinct sections. The first series of interviews introduces and develops the clowning dance style. The second series explains how the dance style, krumping, evolved from the original clowning and matured into its own identity. The third section of the film depicts a dance battle called The Battle Zone which takes place between clowns and krumpers at the Great Western Forum in 2004. The film style and soundtrack draws creative ties between African dance and developing style of krump. An atypical sequence in the film uses montage to compare 1940s era anthropological films of African dance ritual with contemporary clowning and krumping dance maneuvers.
David LaChapelle opens Rize with a disclaimer that reads, "The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way." This is a necessary thing to note because the general movements and rapid body contortions that are characteristic of krump dance are done with such speed and intensity that they have been described as mind-boggling at the least. LaChapelle then proceeds to open the film with footage of the Watts Riots that happened in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California in 1965. This upheaval was in response to oppressive acts done by white police officers onto a black motorist by the name of Marquette Frye in August of that year. This incident unleashed a long-brewing hatred and anger over the black oppression in America, which erupted into full-blown riots throughout South Central. The riots lasted a total of five days and at the cost of 34 lives and 40 billion dollars in property damage.
The star of Rize, Tom Johnson, who goes by the name of Tommy the Clown for the obvious reason that he started clown dancing, grew up in Watts just following the Watts Riots. He watched this oppression fester even after the riots drew long-overdue attention to it. For much of his youth he followed the stereotypical gritty South Central life style and grew to become a big-time drug dealer. He reports "luckily" being thrown in jail as opposed to the almost inevitable alternate fate of being shot dead in the wrong neighborhood. He was released from jail in 1992, coincidentally coinciding with the riots in South Central following the Rodney King verdict. The Rodney King riots followed a similar trend to the Watts Riots. They were also in response to police brutality against an African American man by the name of Rodney King. The outburst arose in South Central just following the verdict of not guilty in favor of the 4 white police officers accused of the brutality. The justice system's failure to amend such a severe hit to the race issue opened eyes to the evident lack of progress made since the Watts Riots and Martin Luther King, Jr. The violence of 1992 Riots was a clear indication of the defeat and oppression that the people of South Los Angeles were still experiencing. Tommy, fresh out of jail in 1992, decided he wanted to do something to lift up his community. He got his big break when he was asked to perform as the clown at a little girl's birthday party. Upon seeing the joy that his performance brought to the kids, he decided to pioneer a career out of making people laugh. He started dancing on the streets dressed in his clown suit and performing for birthday parties all over the neighborhood earning him the title of "Ghetto Celebrity." Soon he had a following of kids that would dance with him on the streets, giving birth to the dance style, clowning.
Clowning soon grew into something monumental. The dance group became an alternative option for Inner City kids instead of becoming a member of a gang. This may seem like an overstatement, but in truth it's not. Clowning has in fact grown into a community, so recognized, so desired, and so fulfilling to its members that gangs have chosen to disassociate as to not cause trouble, and children who join are welcomed into a community with strong values. Tommy provides things for his clowns that they can't find anywhere else. He is a father figure. Some of the moms interviewed for the film report using clowning as a privilege. When their kids get in trouble they call Tommy and tell him to not let them dance for the weekend. Because dancing is something they love, this teaches them a lesson. He also tells the kids if they are caught wearing gang colors or being associated with a gang in any way that they are in big trouble. Some of the kids even mentioned being reprimanded as if Tommy was their father. This is a wonderful thing for children who may not have the most solid family structure at home. Also, clowning gives the kids something healthy to do with their time. Dragon, one of the lead krumpers, remarks that not all Inner City kids are sports players as the stereotype says, and dancing gives them another venue other than turning to drugs or violence. Also, dancing provides an outlet for aggression, feelings of oppression, and establishing an identity. These kids are being encouraged to move through their hardships by moving their energy and through doing so they make a name for themselves as performers. As shown in the film, Tommy has single-handedly begun to transform the streets. Before the film was released in 2005, there was known to be over 50 clown groups throughout Los Angeles. Now there is close to 100. If you are going to be in the streets, you might as well be dancing in them.
Tommy's clowns are not the only dance groups on the streets. Krumpers are taking the scene by storm as well. Krump dance is a notably different style of dance than clowning and has provided a healthy rivalry between the two dance forms. Most of the members of krump groups started out as clowns but decided they wanted to push the envelope a little further. While clowning took hip hop out of the MTV spotlight and back into the raw Los Angeles ghetto by adding a new feel and new moves, the purpose of krumping is absolutely to be something original, something raw, rugged, and something that is not a fad, but a way of life. The styles are different in the following ways:
- Krump movements are less figured, less categorized than clown dancing. Arms flail, there is a lot of chest palpitations and the communication between dancers is more war-like. Clowning on the other hand has named dance forms that are mixed together by each individual dancer. These forms include:
- Stripper Dance
- Clown Walk
- Harlem Shake
- Bounce Wit'it
- Krump is notably more aggressive than clowning, although dancers say that fighting is the last thing on their mind when they are dancing.
- Clowns are known to perform for parties and on the streets, while krumpers hold krump sessions instead of established performances. This makes the purpose of these two dance styles different. The goal of clowns is to perform, while the goal of krumpers is to more of a personal catharsis.
Some similarities between the two styles include:
- Both clowns and krumpers paint their faces, although the face paint of clowns is more to look clownish, while krumpers paint their faces in more eccentric designs.
- Both dance styles use their art forms as a release of energy and an outlet for aggression and other things they wish to express.
- Both clowns and krumpers have established crews that they stick with. They don't seem to intermingle between styles.
- Both groups participate in competitions. The largest being the Battle Zone at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, LA
- Both dance styles see themselves apart from hip hop. They don't want to be tied with anything that has been commercialized.
- Both dances address gender issues, giving a place for both men and women to express their identities.
- Both dance styles welcome people of all ages and all body types.
The second section of the film is devoted to krump dance. Krumpers Dragon, Tight Eyez, Baby Tight Eyez, and Miss Prissy play key roles in explaining the dance form. The moment footage of krumping is shown, the difference from clowning is wildly apparent. The most prominent feature is definitely the aggressive energy of the dance. The source of this aggression is clear as Dragon says, "We are not heathens or thugs, what we are is oppressed." Just as seen with the development of clowning, krumpers refuse to surrender under the weight of their oppression. Although the dance may be and expression of aggravated energy, it is in no way violent. Instead, it is proudly held as their "Ghetto Ballet." LaChappelle elaborates on this idea by incorporating the stories of some of these dancers. Creatively, he shows footage of each individual dancing as they tell stories of the hardships they've faced in their neighborhoods. He also includes a montage containing 1940s footage of African dance in parallel to krump sessions. This is a powerful technique that effectively shows the viewer that what these people are dancing is their life stories, and clearly, the anger is justified.
As stated earlier, there is a healthy rivalry between clowns and krumpers. Tommy the Clown utilized this rivalry to create the Battle Zone, an annual competition between the two dance groups that is held over one day at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The last section of the documentary is devoted mainly to this competition. All of the clown groups and the krumpers put up their best members to battle against each other in a dance show-down to see who is the best dance group. The competition is judged by supporters in the crowd by how loud people cheer following performances from a member of each group. The entire competition is won by the group with the most individual wins. In 2004, when the documentary was filmed, the clowns won seven to four.
The victory for the clowns was great, although the celebration was cut short by a tragic event. While Tommy was at the Great Western Forum, someone broke into his house and stole or destroyed almost everything he owned. This event marks a monumental shift in the film towards focusing on the hardships that the people of these ghettos are working every day to overcome. LaChapelle makes sure to incorporate footage of a police officer consoling Tommy by telling him that these things only happen when someone is trying to make positive change in their community. This is undoubtedly a tie to other leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. To elaborate on the dangers of life in the ghetto, LaChapelle shows two dancers telling the camera about seeing a man get shot on the street corner as they were driving by in a car. The two boys tell the story matter-of-factually as if these things are normal occurrences. To drive the point home even further, towards the end of the filming of the movie, a 15 year old girl who was also a promising dancer of Tommy's, by the name of Quinesha Dunford (also known as Lil' Dimples), gets shot and killed along with one of her friends as they were walking to the grocery store. While absolutely heart-breaking, it was clear that the family didn't want to talk extensively about their loss. There was little footage on the subject, although a sweet gesture was made by dedicating the film to her memory. The last minutes bring the documentary full circle by tying these dance forms, a dance from the spirit, to religion and spirituality. For many decades church has been a vital part of the lives of African Americans. LaChapelle shows parallels between the well renowned, and celebrated art form of gospel to that of krump dancing. With this, spirits are uplifted once again and we clearly see the introduction of dance to these ghettos for what it is, a godsend.
Ties to African Dance
The parallels between krumping and traditional African Dance are astonishing and should not go unnoticed. Director LaChapelle entertained this relationship by using filming techniques and specific discussions that exemplified the similarities between the dances.
One of the most prominent similarities is that of gender roles and sexuality between the dance forms. In Rize, the stripper dance gets a lot of film time and tends to be one of the main dances utilized by the clowns. The stripper dance involves the dancer having their legs spread wide, and thrusting their pelvis rapidly making their butt bounce. This clearly has sexual connotations and sometimes gets even more explicit than that. In some so called traditional African dance forms, sexual movements play a key role. Similarly, in some cases movements are explicitly sexual and are used to attract the opposite sex or dramatize courtship.
Throughout history, people have often described "black" dances as crude, vulgar, lascivious and devoid or grace or technique. However, African dances are often very graceful, requiring expert skill and training. African dance has often incorporated twists or jerks utilizing extreme flexibility often with distortion of the limbs accompanied by polyrhythmic music. Today is no exception. Some extreme technique sticklers will still critique krumping in such a way, even though it has clearly made a name for itself as a legitimate dance form. As mentioned earlier, clowns and krumpers encourage people of all ages to dance. Some onlookers might be mortified at seeing a pre-pubescent girl doing the stripper dance, but as one of the dancers puts it in the film, "She isn't doing anything wrong. She isn't being sexual. There is nobody out there with her. There's nobody touching her. She's popping, what's wrong with popping?"
Other similarities are that, while many African dances are non-confrontational, reserved, and stately, some traditional African dances as well as krumping express feelings of aggression. LaChappelle incorporated a montage between 1940s footage of African dance and footage of aggressive krumping showing that dancers practicing both dance forms push each other, yet mean no harm. Dragon at one point mentioned that "fighting is the last thing on our minds when we dance." As said above, these dancers have every right to express their aggressive energies. Krumping also allows people to dance out conflicts in battles instead of resorting to violence.
Another similarity is the expression of gender identity. Aggressive dances are often seen as a man's art form, but both African dance and krumping have transcended that stereotype. Women in African dance get their own time to tell their stories through movement, as do female clowns and krumpers. In one scene LaChapelle depicted a man and a woman battling on the dance floor against each other. They both take on their gender roles and use the dance as a way to empower themselves as men and women.
The fifth similarity between the dances is the use of music. Traditionally, in African dance, music does not always dictate the movement, as seen typically in Euro/Western dance forms. Instead, there is an dynamic relationship between the music and movement. Often the movement mediates the music inspiring certain rhythms to be created specifically for that dance. Other times, the opposite is true: the movement is created for the music; and, in some instances music and dance are created concurrently in an improvisation. LaChappelle expressed this unique relationship by creating a soundtrack using hip hop music that spoke about krumping and clowning in particular. In this case a lot of the music was created for the dance, instead of vice-versa.
Rize received positive reviews from critics, garnering a high rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the critiques were positive and pointed out the beneficial impact that the exposure the film provided would have on the dance form and the people involved. They commented on LaChapelle's ability to capture the dance in such visually brilliant and dynamic way and compare the dance's parallels with African roots. Most of the negative critiques noted that LaChapelle seemed to have glossed over issues of urban unrest, sexuality, and violence, instead of making them a focal point of the film. The general consensus of negative critics was that the film was carried by its Hollywood glam instead of delving deeply into the harsh realities of life in the ghettos of Los Angeles.
- Lil' C : himself
- Tommy the Clown : himself
- Dragon (now called Slayer): himself
- Ceasare "Tight Eyez" Willis : himself
- La Niña : herself
- Miss Prissy : herself
- Wild Boi : himself
- Larry : himself
- Lil' Mama : herself (not to be confused with the rapper Lil' Mama)
- Big Mijo : himself
- Baby Tight Eyez : Christian Jones
- Daisy : herself
- Lil Tommy the Clown (Shannon Hill) : himself
- IMDB Movie Database
- LaChapelle official site
- Lions Gate Films official site
- Entertainment Weekly Film Review
- Slant Magazine Film Review
- Rotten Tomatoes Review Aggregator
- The Spirit's Dance in Africa by ED Esther A. Dagan. Galerie Amrad African Arts Publications 1997.
- Rodney King Rebellion by Brenda Wall. African American Images: Chicago, IL 1992.
- Radical L.A. by Errol Wayne Stevens. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2009.