—About this Film
“Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13
Brought to us by director David LaChapelle (the fashion photographer whose contribution to pop culture includes the Christina Aguilera’s "Dirrty" video), Rize is a documentary chronicling the practice of "Clowning" and "Krumping." Odds are that you’ve never heard of either way of dancing, though you may have seen the hyper-kinetic hip-hop dance stylings in videos (the dance moves are often so frenetic that the film has to assure us that the frames haven’t been sped up).
The movie makes the case that this radical dance form plays an enormous (potential) role in the black communities in South Central Los Angeles. The dancing is important as a serious form of spiritual and artistic expression—and as an alternative to gang participation.
The movie opens by putting the movement in a historical context, tracing the history of South Central from the Civil Rights era riots to the post-Rodney King verdict riots. It was in response to the 1992 riots that “ghetto celebrity” Tommy Johnson (Tommy the Clown) created what he would call Clowning. Tommy, up until then, had been involved in a life of gang-banging and drug dealing. "Living like that," he says, "you either wind up shot dead or in jail. I was lucky. I wound up in jail." Jail afforded him the opportunity to examine his life as he turned to God, asking for another chance to turn his life around. He started his clown group as a way of entertaining at parties, to provide laughs and make people happy. One of his early disciples branched off, developing an alternative style dubbed Krumping (for those keeping score at home, apparently all Clowns “krump”, but not all Krumps “clown”).
The movie builds to the event known as the Battle Zone, an organized competition between clown groups. This speaks to the historical competitive nature of creative expression within the black community (see the rap battles depicted in the movie 8 Mile). This fifth Battle Zone proves so popular that it is held in the Great Western Forum.
“When you’re drowning and you see a board floating by, you’re gonna grab that board.” Dragon
The cauldron that this seemingly strange dance form sprang from is the day-to-day inner city life. When presented with a situation of no money, no hope, no justice, and limited educational resources—combined with the daily reality of drugs and violence—pain and anger need an outlet. As the dancers observe, when one grows up on a steady diet of violence, robbing, and dealing, some people “catch a feel for it.” Others look elsewhere for something positive. And, as it has so often been before, the outlet comes in the form of music and dance, artists creating something useful out of what life has handed them. (It is interesting to note that the dancers resent the fact that the only after-school programs offered to them are sports, as if that was the only way for them to express themselves. Not everyone in black communities plays basketball or football.)
This isn’t the first time that oppressive conditions have spawned musical/cultural movements within the black community; spirituals, the blues, doo-wop and soul are all fueled by the focused pain and anger that gave rise to hip-hop as the dominant form of expression. This “ghetto ballet” appears to be the next evolutionary step of break-dancing. The dancers form their own troupes, much like gang sets, paint their faces like warriors, then meet to combat/outperform rival gangs of dancers and hone their skills. (An oddly surreal moment comes when one of the dancers is painted up like a character from the movie, The Warriors. All of a sudden, it felt like life had come full circle. You almost get the feel that this is a mockumentary, except that the reality of one of the dancers being randomly gunned down reminds us of the desperatel reality of this struggle for beauty in life within the constant shadow of death.)
The allure and draw of gangs is the illusion of family and love that they provide. Well, “illusion” may be harsh; the family in the streets gives “their idea” of love. Gang families, clown families, church families; you have a group of people from families that haven’t been this broken since the days of slavery, searching for respect and belonging. Krump-ness becomes “that closed chapter of your life–the hurt, the anger–that no one knows about.” The secret to surviving, as the older dancers seek to mentor the younger ones, is reduced to one simple rule: show them more love and they’ll overcome this.
“There’s a spirit in the midst of krump-ness.” Dragon
I don’t have to make spiritual connections with this movie because it does it for me. There is a natural connectedness between worship and dance, worship and spirit. This exploration of dance took the dancers back to their roots as they danced from their spirit. “I get my Krump from Jesus,” Miss Prissy says plainly. “God started me on this way,” and she uses the gift that she’s been given.
In their efforts to connect with something higher, the dancers draw on African dance and ritual (a point driven home in the movie with a side-by-side comparison to tribal dancers). The herky-jerky movements remind me of the “riding of spirits” (where people danced until “possessed” by spirits), or ceremonies of worship traditions. One dancer even hits this ecstatic plateau in mid-performance. It’s a flow, it’s a vibe, it’s a connection; or as one dancer proclaims, “once you see the real thing, you will know the real thing.”
For the dancers, Krumping takes on a transcendent purpose, becoming a way of life vital to who they are. At its core is the need to keep things real, placing itself in direct opposition to the bling-bling/commercial mentality of today’s hip-hop culture. The kids want the moral foundation, the realness of things of substance. They want to matter. This search for authenticity has gotten me thinking about the idea of the ancient-future: the idea of re-examining where you are and where you are heading in light of re-connecting to your past traditions.
There has been an on-going conversation within the (postmodern) church about the disconnect from its rich theological and ecclesial traditions. “Ancient” refers to the teachings, doctrines, worship, ethics, morality and practices of the Church, embracing the full traditions and timeless teachings of historic Christianity. “Future” is the re-contextualization of the faith—making the Gospel relevant and able to speak to the new challenges of our culture, without sacrificing our Tradition on the altar of secular, popular, and cultural traditions. Ancient-Future worship has depth, is participatory, and is passionate. Such worship wants to move past performance and get to the real thing: God-directed, genuine worship.
I’ve been concerned that this on-going conversation hasn’t seemed to include African American churches. There is a longing that goes beyond some of the modern tendencies of the church, and the consumer-driven “Gospel” that pervades it, especially in the African American church. There are African and African-American faith practices and traditions that shouldn’t be ignored if the church is to be relevant to all peoples. The movie itself ends with white people and the Asian communities embracing the dance form.
In Rize, you have inner city kids–disenfranchised people that the American society is quick to try and forget–trying to find their way in the world. In the midst of the pathologies that plague their environment, they seek to express themselves. They re-visit the past in the form of ancient African dance, combining it with hip-hop dance, and connecting with God. It makes me want to repeat the passage from Jeremiah (31:13): “Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” Or as Dragon simply puts it “we’re gonna rise no matter what.”
—About this Film