"Krumping" is a frenetic dance style combining make-up that is equal parts Ringling Bros. and graffiti art; moves so fast they need to be shown in slow motion to be fully appreciated; and pantomimes reflecting everything from the Rodney King beating to the "jumping in" ritual L.A. street gangs inflict on new members. L.A.'s storied South Central district is the epicenter of this new movement, which was born, almost accidentally, out of the outreach efforts of a man called Tommy, the Hip-Hop Dancing Clown.
A former drug dealer, Tommy went to prison and emerged a changed man, looking for good to do. Tommy's first clown costume was improvised: what began as a favor for a friend who needed an entertainer for a child's birthday party blossomed into a movement when Tommy saw how engaged kids became as a result of his combination of clowning and dance moves. In a few years' time, Tommy started a dance academy, where his protégés learned hip-hop moves and the art of clown make-up as an affirmative alternative to the street violence and other urban problems many encountered in their daily lives. Tommy's disciples grew up, splintered off and formed their own dance troupes (one interview subject surmises there are 90 thriving clown groups in South Central), developing their own styles of movement and make-up in a synthesis of Tommy's approach and more aggressive elements reflecting the wider hip-hop world.
LaChappelle begins his documentary with footage of both the Watts and Rodney King riots before cutting to krump dancers pantomiming the King video as part of a routine. His point is not that South Central is a community of suffering victims but that it is a place that heals and renews itself, making stunning new modes of personal expression out of even the most frightening events of daily life. LaChappelle's brilliantly shot and edited dance sequences are an affirmation of the part of the story the American media's "gangsta" fetish misses, which is that the vast majority of African Americans are not dope-dealing psychopaths but rather people with hopes and dreams and the full range of human emotions, all of which are expressed here through movement. If art is the expression of the personal in forms that are universal, the dancers featured here are true artists, making visual poetry out of the world they live in, and the one they hope to find some day.
That Hollywood is still oblivious to krumping despite its having spawned an annual event so popular within the community it's housed at the stadium-sized L.A. Forum probably says something significant about relations between the supposedly liberal media and the local black community it owes so much to but seems at times to have written off. With "Rize," which was acquired by Lions Gate at the Sundance Film Festival, the genie is out of the bottle, and one can only hope that these young dancers can retain their admirable senses of priority and proportion once they are caught in the media spotlight that is almost surely about to alight upon them. If krumping is reduced by the deacons of media style into a new kind of back-up dancer for Snoop Dogg or some attractive facepaint on 50 Cent, it will be not only a waste but a tragedy, one that will surely make LaChappelle's permanent record of the idealistic birth of something new in the world that much more precious. Directed by David LaChappelle. Produced by David LaChappelle, Mark Hawker and Ellen Jacobson-Clarke. A Lions Gate release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content, drug references, language and brief nudity. Running time: 84 min