This paper examines the narrative strategies of David LaChapelle’s 2005 documentary film Rize, and the representations of blackness therein. LaChapelle’s film characterizes his subjects, the krumpers and clown dancers of South Central Los Angeles, as exceptional given their violent and impoverished environment. This exceptionalism is then complicated by a troubling use of African tribal footage, which LaChapelle uses to connect blackness to Africanness. LaChapelle’s construction of the film’s narrative and characterization of the dancers directly impact its marketability. Analysis of film reviews confirms the persistence of racist expectations about blackness in the film’s reception as well as its production. Both kinesthetic and verbal voices of the krumpers are placed in juxtaposition with their representation in the film itself and in reviews of the film. These voices contradict and occasionally subvert the racism underlying the film’s construction and reception.
Bodies heave and gyrate in slow motion in a smokey, dark, underground club where disco balls toss fragments of glittery light across sweaty, glazed faces. Music propels these bodies in motion, and as the camera pans this young, attractive crowd, it stops on one performer in the center of a circle of dancers. She thrusts her chest forward and back, rippling her spine and popping her sternum. She throws her head back, sending long braids flying. While many viewers may not recognize this performer, fans of the dance form “krumping” will know her as Miss Prissy. In 2005, pop icon Madonna featured Miss Prissy in several dance sequences in the music video for her single “Hung Up.” Earlier that same year, Miss Prissy was featured in David LaChapelle’s documentary film Rize. Madonna’s music video borrows more than Miss Prissy from Rize: glossy, glamorous, and sexualized images of dancers, the krumping movement vocabulary, and krumping’s context all carry over from documentary to music video, reflecting the marketability of these elements. In the “Hung Up” video, we are introduced to krumping in a poor, urban neighborhood where African-American youths wait at a dilapidated bus stop. This setting is imported directly from Rize, and supports some less camera-friendly realities of racism and struggle, realities the entertainment industry is quick to contain, much like LaChapelle’s cameras contain the potential threat and possible resistance of krumping bodies.
With the advent of film technology, the historical problems of recording dance and developing dance archives has been both diminished and complicated by new media. While much of the dance on film exists in dance company archives or part of dance ethnography studies, the dance film as an entertainment genre has become quite popular. Some of these films, including Rize, are positioned as documentaries. I believe that dance sequences in major films are always shaped and contextualized by methods that require critique, including films positioned as documentary. Filming dance makes these performances available to a vastly larger audience, a wider swath of demographics, and thus more potential markets. Film also heavily mediates the experience of the spectator through camera angle choice, editing, special effects, and a myriad of other technical elements. The always-present concerns of the market, of the film industry, and of consumers themselves often influence the final composition of these elements. How then can we understand the dance sequences, both staged and candid, in Rize? Certainly, without this film we would not have some of the most vivid and moving dance footage of krumping that currently exists. However, this footage does not appear in a vacuum, and its deliberate framing by outside parties adds a thick chorus of silent but palpable voices that in many ways overshadow those of the dancers.
The documentary film Rize mediates, via its composition, the spectator’s relationship to the performers by adhering to a problematic narrative dependent upon racial difference. More specifically, krumping is characterized through editing choices as functioning as a return to Africa, a claim based tenuously on skin color. This return to Africa is made plausible and even desirable through the film’s narrative of exceptionalism, another choice predicated on racial difference and carried out through the framing of the krumpers’ (native?) environment of South Central Los Angeles as dangerous, violent, and poverty-stricken. The position of privilege occupied by LaChapelle as director is echoed in reviews of Rize, which confirm the troubling success of LaChapelle’s project, as well as the efficacy of his mediation of the krumpers’ stories. Analysis of both the production and reception of Rize reveals the persistence of racist ideologies among the arbiters of popular culture, a persistence fought against by the krumpers themselves who seek to transcend such ideologies through articulate bodies. A closer look at the movement vocabulary of the dancing itself and its context unearths the fault lines of LaChapelle’s project.
Rize focuses on the African-American communities of clowns and krumpers in South Central Los Angeles. Most of these dancers are young, poor, and would be classified as “at risk.” Director David LaChapelle follows these dancers from rehearsal to Battlezone, an annual dance competition, alternating between footage of the dancing and interviews with the dancers and their families. The film is set in the outskirts of South Central Los Angeles–areas like Englewood and Compton that have become synonymous in the American popular imagination with deviances of all kinds, due to representations in news media, music, and film. However, LaChapelle does not begin the film in the present day. Focusing instead on the history of racial conflict in South Central, including footage of the Watts riots of 1965 and the 1992 Rodney King riots, LaChapelle situates his film deliberately within a racially specific violence. Journalist Benji Wilson of The Observer terms this context “an area of systematic subjugation.” While the context of krumping is important both for LaChapelle’s narrative and for a general understanding of the significance of the dance form, I will turn first to an analysis of the dancing itself, focusing on both movement vocabulary and LaChapelle’s framing of this vocabulary.
While krumping became the breakout dance form from Rize, the film incorporates both clowning and krumping (two related but distinct dance forms) into its narrative. Tommy the Clown, one of the protagonists of Rize, claims to have started clowning (which incorporates elements of hip-hop and breakdancing, performed in clown costume and makeup) to survive financially after rejecting drug dealing, following his release from prison. He eventually developed Tommy’s Hip-Hop Clown Academy, acting, in the words of many family members interviewed by LaChapelle, as a father figure who kept kids in school and out of gangs. Clowning is not only movement, but incorporates elaborate makeup as part of its aesthetic, an element that transfers to krumping. In fact, LaChapelle interviews most of the clown and krump dancers while they put on their face paint in preparation for performance. Clowning is a highly public dance form, practiced and performed for an audience. This mode of performance developed as a way to make money, to provide Tommy’s income. His business endeavor was not incredibly lucrative, though, as Tommy is evicted from his home during the course of the film. He had, however, gained enough community support both socially and financially to open up Tommy’s Hip-Hop Clown Academy, which serves the double function of earning Tommy an income and providing the youth of South Central with a place to go after school.
Clowning entertains, and its practitioners in the film are acutely aware that they serve a public: “People want to see a show.” In one of the few moments in the film that LaChapelle’s presence is made known, he asks, “What’s a clown group?” The dancers respond, “Birthday parties, making people happy, a group of people entertaining.” Krumping, a more aggressive style that evolved out of clowning, is also a consciously public dance form. Krumping takes place in a group setting, though it is predominantly a solo form and lacks the unison choreography of clowning. LaChapelle asks several dancers in a montage sequence to break down the movement origins of clown and krump. One dancer is very precise: She begins with a “stripper dance” (a series of pelvic gyrations) using her lower body, then adds “clowning,” consisting of a series of deliberately showy rhythmic propulsions of the chest and an extension of the arms. The movement initiates from the torso, rippling through the central trunk of the body and into the extremities of the arms and legs. Krumping and clowning share an emphasis on torso articulation in the “popping” of the chest and hips. Clowning and krumping are both public dance forms, done in groups with featured solos. Both are closely tied to the rhythms of hip-hop music, and mimic those rhythms in the percussive nature of their movement vocabularies. However, their practitioners situate the purpose of these dance forms in distinctly different spheres of art and entertainment. 1
Krumping developed out of clowning with a focus on self-expression and social justice, in the sense that much of the expression resulted from feelings of anger, dissatisfaction, and powerlessness due to social injustice. Towards the beginning of the film, Dragon emphatically states, “If you’re drowning and there’s nothing around for help but a board floating, you’re gonna reach out for that board. This [dance] was our board. And from this board we floated abroad and we built us a big ship.” Dragon’s feelings are reiterated by other krumpers, who feel that krumping has afforded them an opportunity to use their own agency to determine elements of their reality, a reality rooted in social injustices of racial prejudice and poverty. In a moment of comedy, a member of a clown/krump crew smirks, “we used to be get ‘em up clowns, now we’re get ‘em up soldiers.” In this moment, the ideological shift from clowning to krumping becomes clear. This ideological shift from clowns to soldiers is also present aesthetically, in the movement itself. The standout feature of krumping that aesthetically differentiates this form from clowning is a strong, aggressive quality of movement. Before any footage of the dancing, Rize begins with a disclaimer: “The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way.” Both clowning and krumping develop tremendous speed in movement, though the aggressive quality of krumping tends to accelerate that speed beyond clowning. Krumpers also position themselves as artists, not commercial entertainers. Young performer Dragon claims, “We’re in the dance world, we’re gonna be in the art world…this is not a trend.” The krumpers desire artistic recognition as creators of an original dance form. Explaining the emotional outlet provided by krumping, Lil C claims, “Anything negative that has happened in your life, you can channel that into your dancing and you can release that in a positive way because you’re releasing it through art, the art of dance.” Dance, for the krumpers, is a mode of self-expression, a moment of using one’s kinesthetic agency to convey emotion.
In the mid-point of the film, LaChapelle juxtaposes footage of the krumpers during a street battle on a neighborhood basketball court with footage of an African tribal gathering. As tribe members paint their faces for ritual, krumpers paint their own faces with their crew colors and individual names. LaChapelle follows a battle between krumping soloists aggressively trading dance phrases back and forth, intercutting it with a challenge dance from the African tribe. Such comparisons continue between the superficially similar movement styles and structures. This editing choice immediately crystallizes LaChapelle’s implicit and explicit claim that the dancers’ skin color, their “blackness,” is equivalent to Africanness, which is in turn equivalent to some kind of authentic primitive experience. An interview with Dragon segues into this footage: “We didn’t have to go to school for this; it was implanted in us from birth.” LaChapelle interprets Dragon’s remarks as a reference to the innate quality of Africanness in all black people, rather than a reference to the history of violence and poverty some African-Americans experience. In a September 2005 interview with journalist Eleftheria Parpis, LaChapelle claims, “They never study African art or dance. Yet they were doing this dance that was so African because it was just sort of in them, and it came out (citation?).” LaChapelle does not identify the specific tribe, location, or time period of his tribal footage, thereby implying that specificity is unimportant because all African tribes share an inherent racial commonality. 2 Of course, there are countless differences in movement vocabularies across the geography of Africa which serve to counter LaChapelle’s essentialist presentation. Moreover, we cannot know how LaChapelle edited this footage to fit with his own footage of the krumpers. What might we be missing about the context of this tribal footage? Ultimately, LaChapelle gives more credence to how the body moves rather than why, where or when it moves, concluding that because the bodies moving are black bodies, they share an authentic, innate connection to African moving bodies.
From this moment in the film, it is clear that LaChapelle interprets krumping as an escape back to Africa, back to one’s “roots.” LaChapelle frames the movements of krumping as representations of “authentic” blackness. Paul Gilroy has previously articulated the popular trope of the body and dance as authentic in reference to breakdancing: “Dance is regularly identified as one of the most reliably and authentically African elements in the black vernacular” (1997: 21). Gilroy’s observation is noteworthy for its differentiation between Africa and the black vernacular. These are two distinct spaces that undoubtedly overlap, but in far more intentional and articulate ways than LaChapelle presents in his positioning of krumping. Furthermore, none of the performers when interviewed articulate a self-perceived connection to Africa, as embodied in either their skin color or their dancing. In his work on “performing blackness,” E. Patrick Johnson describes an alternative interpretation of blackness as distinct from Africanness, one that the krumping movement vocabulary addresses despite LaChapelle’s presentation:
Blackness does not only reside in the theatrical fantasy of the white imaginary that is then projected onto black bodies, nor is it always consciously acted out; rather, it is also the inexpressible yet undeniable racial experience of black people – the ways in which the ‘living of blackness’ becomes a material way of knowing (2003: 8).
Indeed, I am not advocating an understanding of krumping that removes it from its context, which is unavoidably racialized. However, the meaning that race has within the context and movement of krumping lies closer to Johnson’s “material way of knowing,” a definition which allows for significant agency and creativity on the part of the krumpers. Moreover, when the blackness of the performers signifies lived experience and materiality rather than transcendent escape to mythic Africa, the urgency and immediacy of the dance form is preserved.
The film itself provides one such instance of the agency and creativity of the krumpers’ blackness, as understood in Johnson’s terms. Joseph Roach’s theory of surrogation and memory provides a useful frame for analyzing not only the movement itself, but also its context and impetus in lived experience. Roach theorizes that “actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure, survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates” (1996: 2). Vacancies are omnipresent in the world of Rize: absent fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters and friends mark the lives of the krumpers. Death and prison are the most common forms of departure, renting holes in the social fabric and disrupting continuity. In Rize, krumping attempts to knit this community back together, not only filling the cavities created by violence, but also acting as a preventative measure against future violence. In this sense, krumping goes beyond surrogation because of its potential to change its cultural landscape, rather than simply providing a source of continuity.
In one of the most moving scenes from Rize, Lil C krumps on the beach at sunset, thrusting his arms and torso toward the ocean in rapid convulsions, communicating on a kinesthetic plane with the spirit, however he may conceive of this spirit. We have learned before this scene that Lil C grew up without his father, who committed suicide at their family home when he was a child. Lil C describes the spiritual element of krumping as one of its most powerful attractions: “When you know that there’s a krump session, me – myself – and I know a lot of people will stop whatever’s going on if there’s a gathering because it’s the spirit that’s there. In the midst of krumpness, there’s a spirit.” In this moment on the beach, krumping is not only a surrogate for the familial connections that violence and poverty have destroyed in Lil C’s personal life, but also a new, radical proliferation of his own kinesthetic power. He earlier describes his own relationship to krumping: “Krumpness is the closed chapter of your life of hurt, sorrow, anguish that people don’t know about.” In this statement and in the footage on the beach, krumping is articulated, both verbally and kinesthetically, as a personal—in some ways private—mode of expression; one in contrast to the long montages of the krumpers’ communities and families that LaChapelle includes. Within kinesthetic expression, Lil C finds a means to communicate his narrative and his desires, thus inhabiting a politically and socially articulate body; a body, moreover, that in this scene is not dependent upon the community of South Central that LaChapelle shapes.
In order to shape krumping as an escape back to Africa, LaChapelle must show what the dancers are escaping from. The environment of South Central and the context of the dancing become essential to LaChapelle’s argument that krumping is an escape and also that the dancers are exceptional, anomalous, and distinct from this environment. Both of these claims are predicated on racial difference. LaChapelle’s attention to the specificity of the movement’s context is apparent in the wealth of interviews with the dancers and their families that are spliced between scenes of the dancing itself. LaChapelle wants his viewers to firmly locate the movement within the context of violence and oppression that surrounds the dancers. The goal of this context is to frame dancing as an alternative to “gangbanging,” which is the only other option presented by LaChapelle. This framing participates in scholar Tricia Rose’s “politics of fear that systematically criminalizes and dehumanizes black and brown male adolescents and adults through racialized languages of cultural deprivation and primitivism” (1997: 273). LaChapelle’s language is visual, and his images of broken-down housing projects and frequent violence are expected but nonetheless unsettling. LaChapelle’s aim is certainly not to criminalize the krumpers; indeed it is to reveal how remarkable their accomplishments are in contrast to this oppressively violent context. However, his presentation of gangbanging, poverty, and violence as inevitable, natural paths stemming from life in South Central precludes the possibility for other realities, other experiences and other interpretations of this community. In an interview in the film, Miss Prissy advances this same critique, claiming that outsiders always think, “How can you live here? It’s so dangerous!” She responds, “It’s not dangerous. It’s life.” Her response speaks to E. Patrick Johnson’s materiality of blackness and to the reality that despite violence and poverty, life is happening in South Central; lives are being created that, while influenced by the environment, are not defined by it.
The two possibilities of krumping and gangbanging are book-ended in the film by an interview with the mother of Larry, one of the participants in Tommy the Clown’s dance group, and the physical juxtaposition of Tommy’s Hip-Hop Clown Academy with the storefront of “Payless Caskets.” Larry’s mother succinctly states the options she sees for her son: “I don’t want him to be a Blood, I don’t want him to be a Crip, I want him to be a clown […] We’re in the lion’s den, the pit of snakes.” Larry’s mother views her environment as a producer of sin, of violence, and of danger, a sentiment echoed later in the film by the performer Swoop, who claims, “If I wasn’t clowning, I would probably be a very bad person.” The equation of violence and danger with South Central is total in the film, voiced not only by LaChapelle in his footage and editing, but also by the participants themselves. Toward the end of the film, LaChapelle takes the viewer into Payless Caskets, located next to Tommy’s Hip-Hop Clown Academy in a strip mall in South Central. To emphasize the gravity of the krumpers’ choice to dance rather than gangbang, LaChapelle follows the footage of Payless Caskets with the story of the murder of Quinesha Dunford, a young clown performer who was fatally shot by gang members during the filming of Rize. Though LaChapelle’s narrative feels a bit heavy handed at times, his interviews with the performers and his inclusion of Quinesha Dunford do serve to illustrate that, however transcendent the krumping experience may be, the reality of violence persists.
Due to the fact that this violence is racially specific, black subjectivities become important devices of characterization in the film. The narratives of growing up on “the streets” are familiar by now, as are the scenes of broken-down subsidized housing and empty strip malls that LaChapelle includes. What is added to the conversation is the medium of dance, the phenomenon of a new dance form: krumping. However, even in his dance footage LaChapelle constructs a particular representation of blackness, soliciting certain performances of blackness from the dancers, strictly limited to the primitive and the exceptional. In an interview with The Times journalist David Rowan, LaChapelle in an oft-quoted moment claims, “These kids are creating an art form from nothing (2005).” While this statement does ascribe agency to the “kids” (the performers), it is nevertheless ignorant to the “nothing” that these artists are using in creating their art form. The assumption that the performers in Rize have nothing allows their creativity to be even more exceptional, making LaChapelle’s narrative more dramatic and compelling for the viewer. Capitalizing on the poverty and violence of South Central (in itself a problematic generalization) actually results in distancing the dancers from their environment by making them exceptions. In contrast to almost everyone else (according to the film), these anomalous few dancers have broken the cycle of violence; they have chosen a different path. For some dancers, this may be true. Miss Prissy, one of the film’s stars, travels away from South Central to use a dance studio to practice praise dance, thus literally distancing herself from her environment. But krumping as a dance form is embedded in basements and basketball courts – a context that is vital to the meaning that the dance form carries. When the krumpers express, either verbally or kinesthetically, anger at the social situation that surrounds them, their expression is not one of desire for escape from the community. Rather, it is a desire for change for the entire community—not just an exceptional few.
In the Eleftheria Parpis interview, LaChapelle himself notes the importance of the dancers’ backgrounds in creating a compelling narrative: “These are kids from the hardest families in the ghetto…the dance becomes much more profound when you know the story (2005).” LaChapelle situates the performers’ histories in “the ghetto” using language that is culturally coded with violence and poverty. Journalist Chris Ayres, who lives in Los Angeles, writes, “I don’t go [to Compton] often. If I want to find out what’s going on in America’s most notorious urban warzone, I usually drive to my local cinema instead. For a start, it’s a lot closer, more importantly, I’m allergic to semi-automatic gunfire […] Without the shootings and the urban poverty, the dancing wouldn’t be as cool (2005).” Ayres’ review is meant to be ironic in tone and critical of the film’s project, yet he himself as reviewer makes few attempts to remedy LaChapelle’s problematic mediation. Ayres’ statement implies his privilege as a viewer: he has the choice to see this violence, whereas the dancers do not. Furthermore, Ayres’ comment reveals the relative safety of the movie theatre seat and thus the privilege of distance for most viewers. Rather than making the effort of going to Compton, Ayres uses the tools he already knows, the convenience of his privilege, to “find out what’s going on.” Similarly, LaChapelle uses a narrative he already knows well and formats the footage to this narrative, rather than allowing the movement to create a new narrative.
LaChapelle’s inclusion of the poverty and violence of South Central is crucial for an understanding of the context of krumping and its bodily extremes, particularly as they relate to aggression. However, his understanding of “blackness,” and his reliance on racial stereotypes to further a marketable narrative, fails to articulate as powerfully as the movement itself the struggle involved in his subjects’ lives. Despite their omnipresence, violence and poverty serve as ruptures in this community; but they are viewed uniquely through his subjects’ experiences. LaChapelle shows, through his inclusion of Quinesha Dunford (to whom the film is dedicated) that krumping cannot fully transcend the omnipresence of violence. This seems to leave one other option for LaChapelle: that krumping is an escape, when it is actually an articulate, socially and artistically progressive response to a dangerous environment.
Rize ends with a staged scene of Lil C, Miss Prissy, Dragon, and others krumping under an overpass. LaChapelle cuts back and forth between this footage, and footage from rehearsals and community events, further contextualizing the krumpers through their communities. With graffiti surrounding the dancers, LaChapelle captures the shot in slow motion; the dancers’ bodies slick and glistening with sweat as their torsos writhe beneath the blistering South Central sun. This setting firmly locates krumping within an urban environment, and more specifically within a popularly construed deviant environment. To accompany this scene, LaChapelle adds the spiritual song “Oh Happy Day,” This spiritual element complicates LaChapelle’s placement of the movement in its context, reminding viewers of the tradition of Christian gospel music in African-American communities, a tradition which is in some ways counter to the urbanity, aggression, and violence of the hip-hop and rap genres that generally accompany krumping. Popular culture has placed these earlier forms into the realm of respectable, proper blackness, whereas rap and hip-hop confirm the presumed danger of black bodies. LaChapelle’s placement of “Oh Happy Day” over krumping footage implies both the co-existence of these earlier and later traditions, as well as their continuity. In this sense, LaChapelle historicizes the krumpers much as he historicizes South Central with his footage of the race riots. However, this historicizing carries risk, as Tricia Rose points out:
African-American history is packed with understandably romantic and heroic collective memories of struggles that highlight tenacious acts of cultural survival against daunting odds. However, romancing resistance, either within or outside market forces or technologies, encourages the reproduction of strategies that rely on organizational structures based on gender and class oppression” (1997: 271).
The film’s use of “Oh Happy Day,” a song meant to convey a sense of continuity within the African-American tradition, romanticizes krumping, thus reproducing acceptable conceptions of blackness. As a result, conceptions of African-American Christian communities as safer spaces for black bodies emerge. These are spaces steeped in an Anglo tradition that assuages fear among the krumping communities onscreen, communities in which spiritual ecstasy occurs on a basketball court instead of a church. LaChapelle’s use of “Oh Happy Day” harkens to other African-American traditions which, despite their origins in resistance, are accepted into mainstream and white American culture and thus made less subversive.
LaChapelle does not end his film with “Oh Happy Day,” however, and it is by remaining seemingly oblivious to the racist assumptions beneath his narrative that LaChapelle allows for moments of letting the krumpers speak for themselves. Hip-hop music, aggressive and propulsive as it is, cuts off “Oh Happy Day,” thus reframing the dancers in another iteration of blackness. If the viewer stays through the credits, he or she will find that the krumpers themselves are rapping the lyrics for many of the original hip-hop songs played throughout the film. In this final moment of footage, the dancers literally provide their own soundtrack, articulating verbally and kinesthetically the ways in which they construct their identities through krumping. LaChapelle addresses this in the Parpis interview, claiming, “The biggest challenge was making sure that I remained authentic and captured all the things that were going on around me – give this stuff the respect that it deserves and protect it from getting screwed up (2005).” LaChapelle’s self-espoused motives may be noble, but his execution remains problematic. His film ends with a freeze frame of the krumpers; it then transitions to a black screen, displaying a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up.” Presumably it is from this quotation that LaChapelle derives his film’s title. The evocation of King functions similarly to the usage of “Oh Happy Day,” placing the krumpers in a continuity of acceptable blackness. This quotation is followed by the dedication to Quinesha Dunford. These two moments respectively remind the audience of acceptable modes of blackness and the cost of deviance. Thus the film ends without the krumpers’ voices, and the permanent silence of one of their own. The moments of agency that make their way into the racist narrative of the film are still bound by its structure, and LaChapelle’s uses of South Central, Africa, and “Oh Happy Day” manipulate and foreclose on the potential strategies of resistance and artistry that krumping represents.
In Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she characterizes film as a “hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy” (2002: 145). Indeed, judging by the reviews of Rize, LaChapelle succeeds at both increasing the distance between South Central and the other metropolises of the world and allowing the viewer to confirm and indulge in their preconceived notions about blackness and black artistry. Both of these are successes which help to push krumping into spectacle, into a commercially viable pursuit. As Los Angeles Daily News reporter Evan Henerson writes, “LaChapelle followed trends purely from the perspective of a fan and a ‘tourist’ of life in South Central (2005).” Though Henerson and Ayres are critical of the film, most reviewers are in awe of the bodies onscreen, accepting LaChapelle’s narrative unblinkingly. LaChapelle’s narration functions primarily as a distancing strategy, perhaps unintentionally playing against commonly held views of the documentary as a close-up, intimate iteration of filmmaking.
Many journalists put into words what is kinesthetically evident in the film, articulating through language the narrative that LaChapelle weaves with editing and movement. Richard Morrison of The Times of London is one such reviewer, content with his distance from the actual violence and poverty of the world onscreen. He uses language and phrases such as, “from the blissful vantage point of ignorance,” “I would happily watch Rize all over again for sheer hedonistic pleasure,” and “[this story is] one that I would love to believe,” which maintain a voyeuristic perspective and reinforce the idea of difference (2005). Morrison ends his review by reassuring his readers that South Central has no real relation to their lives, stating that “our cities are nothing like Los Angeles.” Morrison interprets the film as affirming his role as a benevolent patron who, with his cinema dollars, supports the struggle in Compton without ever having to engage in it personally or critically. Moreover, LaChapelle’s construction of krumping as a return to Africa situates his performers well within a racist discourse of primitivism, thus allowing the viewer—a spectator—to feel superior in his or her distance from both the performance itself and its context within South Central. LaChapelle’s editing work exemplifies E. Patrick Johnson’s conclusion that “black performance, then, becomes the site at which people and behavior are construed as ‘spectacles of primitivism’ to justify the colonial and racist gaze” (2003: 7).
Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle theorizes that the spectacle is a dynamic occasion, but one whose communication lines are always already fixed by dominant social mores: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (2002: 7). In other words, a viewing of Rize illustrates the always-present social relationship of inequality (and in this case racial inequality) by way of visual mediation: LaChapelle’s methods of construction exemplify a preexisting problem; they do not create the problem. His splicing and editing contribute to the isolation and distancing of the spectacle from the lives of the spectators, as evidenced by film reviews, illustrating Debord’s claim that “Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at” (2002: 7, emphasis Debord’s). This containment of the pseudo-world—both by film as a medium and LaChapelle’s methods of filmmaking—also functions to contain “dangerous” black bodies through the making of spectacle. The need to control these bodies, to isolate them from the general population by fitting them into acceptable narratives, fits Debord’s observation that spectacles are inherently based in power relations: “The root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power” (2002: 12, emphasis Debord’s). Power dynamics are inevitable in most – if not all – areas of human endeavor; thus, the problem with power as it is d via spectaclism is its inequality and immobility. Exercise
Towards the end of his film, LaChapelle includes an interview with krumper Tight Eyez, who claims that krumping is different from mainstream hip-hop in that it rejects materialism, or the commodification of its principles: “We’re not gonna be clones of the hip-hop world…we’re of more value than any piece of jewelry that anybody could buy.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what viewers are doing when they purchase a ticket to Rize, however unwittingly they may do so. In writing about the relative disappearance of breakdancing, Paul Gilroy claims: “Some of its specific formal features – its assertive extremity, if you like – were incompatible with the packaging and marketing of hip-hop as just another form of official popular culture. It could not be transformed into an object for sale” (1997: 24). Whereas Tight Eyez, hopes that krumping can hold the spotlight without being corrupted by it, Gilroy’s observation illustrates that without co-option, the black vernacular will fade from popular cultural notice.
LaChapelle has packaged his narrative for the consumer, including glossy and sexualized images of the dancers on the movie posters, DVD jackets, and in the final staged scene. This packaging is unsurprising, given LaChapelle’s success as a music video director. He was introduced to krumping by a backup dancer featured in Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” music video. The framing of krumpers as bodies to be consumed by the spectator contains the threat perceived in the body’s movements. Debord writes, “The fetishism of the commodity…attains its ultimate fulfillment in spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality” (2002:19). LaChapelle’s framing of his film as a documentary, and his editing choices (the “selection of images”), serve to fetishize black bodies in order to commodify them in a predictable and profitable package. Chris Ayres critiques this impulse in his 2005 review, claiming that, “as a brand, Compton is probably worth more than the cost of cleaning the place up.” LaChapelle’s film allows viewers to absolve themselves of responsibility and instead be awed into inaction by the spectacle of the dancers.
Ayers misplaces the blame in his critique of the film, faulting the dancers themselves for upholding a stale but convincing narrative, rather than the director for choosing his footage and asking his questions with the narrative already designed: “I wish the clowners and krumpers would take a year off from defining American popular culture and apply their creative genius to getting rid of the crackhouses.” Ayres fails to recognize that far from defining popular culture, krumping has been assimilated into popular culture, molded to fit its contours. Ayres’ comments also reveal his ignorance of the political agency d by the krumpers: he believes their contributions only have power if they are in widely recognized forms, such as community service, despite the ameliorating effects of krumping as they are understood within the community. Ayres fails to see the complexity of krumping as a subculture, one that fulfills yet complicates Dick Hebdige’s observation that, “the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed…at the profoundly superficial level of appearances” (2001: 2456). For the krumpers, their direct challenge manages to be issued through style, which LaChapelle manipulates at the level of appearance. However verbally articulate LaChapelle’s subjects are, their articulate bodies speak volumes, alternately expressing angry dissatisfaction and ecstasy; and a material embodied knowledge which, when represented visually on film, allows for easy consumerism. Exercise
The particularity of krumping, as Gilroy theorizes with breakdancing, makes it ripe for commodification. Hebdige, discussing how subcultures become assimilated into popular or mainstream culture, claims, “Social relations and processes are then appropriated by individuals only through the forms in which they are represented to those individuals” (2001: 2453). In other words, krumping’s representation through Rize creates the aura of consumerism that dictates the terms that in turn mainstream krumping. Krumping, synonymous with poverty and violence in Rize (much as the black vernacular as a whole), quickly becomes contained and made less dangerous by consumerism. Moreover, if film is truly a hermetically-sealed pseudo-world, then on many levels LaChapelle’s efforts work to distance the spectator from the spectacle, creating a distance that is paved with dollars. Ultimately, his mediation reveals racist assumptions in filmmaker and audience member alike, as well as an adherence to easy stereotypes that makes krumping more marketable and which participates in a new iteration of the selling of black bodies.
I do want to stress that what happens during this spectacle, as the viewer watches from the comfort of his or her seat, does have meaning—regardless of whether that meaning is construed as passively or overly determined. Moreover, though krumping as a dance form is not always well-conveyed in the film, moving bodies nonetheless articulate a real message, one that at moments can transcend the tropes of the narrative of difference by which it is structured. As Joseph Roach states, “The kinesthetic imagination, however, inhabits the realm of the virtual. Its truth is the truth of simulation, of fantasy, or of daydreams, but its effect on human action may have material consequences of the most tangible sort and of the widest scope” (1996: 27). LaChapelle’s framing of krumping as spectacle defines elements of the spectator’s engagement with the film, not the krumpers’ engagement with their art form. Despite LaChapelle’s packaging and reliance on racial difference, there is meaning, even profundity, in Lil C’s krumping on the boardwalk at sunset, as she communicates with an unnamed spirit world using a kinesthetic language that, for Lil C and his community, resists commodification and articulates resistance.
1 I do not argue here that this distinction is particularly valid. There is much slippage between these categories in the film and in broader conversations in dance practice and theory; however, the language used by the practitioners to describe these dance forms distinctly articulates a separation.
2 Toward the end of the film’s credits there is a list of archives from which the outside footage originates. All that is said about the tribal footage is that it is excerpted from Riefenstahl Produktion’s Nuba Footage. There is no attempt to specify location or time, or to contextualize the footage.
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