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A burst of movement; hope is on the rise

In 'Rize,' David LaChapelle tracks the vivid transformation of raw lives and anger into the wild beauty of 'krumping.'

June 12, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"Rize," David LaChapelle's powerful documentary about a galvanizing dance movement created on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles, opens with news footage from the 1965 riots in Watts. Over images of burning buildings and plundered stores, a newscaster's voice, carefully modulated to express more confidence than concern, describes the chaos. "Civil rights leaders were quick to deplore the unbridled lawlessness," intones the disembodied voice, "and Martin Luther King vowed to do all in his power to prevent a recurrence, in Los Angeles or anywhere."

Of course, a recurrence was not prevented, most infamously in Los Angeles in 1992, and the scenes that follow the Watts footage are striking in their similarity. But the second sequence culminates in a bizarre dance beside a row of parked cars, where two women pretend to beat a third with invisible batons. The victim hunches over, her hands clasped behind her back. A fourth woman joins in, and together they pound the air with their fists.

Ten years later, neighborhood kids enact a version of the dance, only it's more ritualized and abstracted, and they've painted their faces like tribal warriors.

As a photographer and music video director, LaChapelle is well known for his surreal and often outrageous portraits of celebrities (which draw from influences as diverse as Renaissance painting and pornography), as well as for his glossy, color-saturated fashion ads and campy, sexy videos for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez. What he's not generally known for is his social realism or socially committed art. So when the riot footage and opening credits of "Rize" cede to images of a large black man in a clown suit and rainbow wig dancing in the street -- a strange jumble of familiar iconography-- you might assume that LaChapelle made him up.

He didn't. Tommy the Hip-Hop Clown is the creation of Tommy Johnson, who invented his new persona in 1992, after a friend asked him to perform at a child's birthday party. Soon, Tommy became an Inglewood kid-party-circuit fixture, performing with children he had trained. As the numbers of clowns increased, and clown groups formed on their own, Tommy founded Battle Zone, a competitive venue for dancers to compete in front of huge audiences. The ticket sales from Battle Zone allowed Tommy to found Tommy's Hip-Hop Clown Academy. The academy no longer operates, but for years neighborhood kids went there to learn the exuberant art of hip-hop clowning.

Almost a decade and a half after he first put on a clown suit, Tommy's influence in the community is immense. The founder of a subculture that offers one of the few alternatives to gang involvement, he's also considered the artistic father of "krump," an aggressive, cathartic, freestyle dance created by some of his original pupils as an expression of the frustration and pain of their systematic oppression.

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Portrait of a neighborhood

The film, which opens June 24, unfolds chronologically, tracing LaChapelle's gradual involvement with the community. Originally setting out to learn more about this original, visually stunning dance form, LaChapelle, who is now based in Los Angeles, wound up creating a moving and inspiring portrait of a dispossessed neighborhood and a group of kids determined to rise above their circumstances.

"In September of 2002, I was working on the 'Dirrty' video for Christina Aguilera," recalls LaChapelle, a tall, soft-spoken guy with big, sleepy eyes. "And backstage there was a room where all the extras were. My friends Tone and Rich Talauega were working on the choreography on this video, and they came up to me on the first day we were shooting and said, 'Dave, you would love this dance these kids are doing in the "hood." '

"I went to the room, where there was music playing, and saw them and lost my mind." The dancers were doing what looks like a manic, desexualized, sped-up version of a lap dance, called "the stripper dance." "It was something I'd never seen before, and my first thought was I wanted other people to see it. I think when you see something beautiful, your tendency is to share it. I just thought, I have to film this."

The following weekend, LaChapelle and his small crew, which included the Talauega brothers and director of photography Morgan Susser, drove down to South Los Angeles, to Tommy's academy.

"It was in this strip mall, this little broken-down ghetto strip mall full of vacant stores. Only three of the stores were occupied. There was a beauty parlor, Tommy's academy, and what we pulled up in front of -- a place called Payless Caskets," LaChapelle says. "I'm looking at this casket store illuminated by our headlights, and I'm seeing these kids walking around with clown makeup on, and I don't know what is going on."

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