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Renowned fashion photographer David LaChapelle's maniacally-engaging new documentary, Rize, has received a warm reception from critics across the country. Many have lauded LaChapelle's breathtaking cinematography (nearly every frame is bright and beautiful enough to hang in a gallery) and the incredible skill of the young dancers he follows in the film.
Rob Nelson of The Village Voice declared LaChapelle's efforts "infectiously energetic and inspiring," while Rolling Stone 's Peter Travers deemed Rize "A knockout! A visual miracle." And Salon's Heather Havrilesky opined about the film: "The breathtaking, animated, at times even aggressive movements you see these kids perform are a bold expression of the pain and suffering they've experienced living in a place where drugs, gun violence and hopelessness can crush the dreams of even the most optimistic."
The trouble with Rize is something most of the above critics neglected to mention: that along with being a movie about dance, Rize is a movie about race. Nearly all of the subjects LaChapelle gives face time to are young African-Americans living in poverty -- many of them men. And some of the disturbing questions LaChapelle brings up -- but fails to answer -- aren't as pretty as his camera work.
Rize is LaChapelle's first film -- an extension of his 2004 short, a Sundance smash called Krumped. The movie documents the evolution of a frenetic, lightning-fast form of dance ("Krumping") born in the drugs-, gang- and violence-addled neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Its dancers are primarily black youth, ranging in age from five to 20-something, who practice Krumping as a unique mode of self-expression, and as a way to release pent-up anger, frustration and pain.
The dancers see Krumping as far removed from the "bling-bling," bullshit world of mainstream hip-hop. They take pride in their dancing, exhibiting a healthy sense of ownership over it because they created it by and for themselves. Though insanely talented, the dancers aren't particularly interested in getting rich and famous.
LaChapelle chronicles the trend as it grows bigger, trailing some of its most talented proponents, day by day, as they rehearse, hang out in friends' bedrooms, pray at church, and, much of the time, dance.
In one of the film's first scenes, the dance's unofficial founder, Tommy the Clown (aka "Big Tommy") prepares for a day of entertaining by slowly painting his face clown-white. It's a disturbing image -- a chubby, middle-aged African-American man putting on "Whiteface" to enter the working world -- but it goes unexplored. One wishes that LaChapelle would have provided viewers with some background information -- a quick historical overview, perhaps, of the social and political implications of "Blackface" and "Whiteface." It's not as simple as putting on a costume, though Tommy just considers it part of the clown business.
A local hero of sorts, Tommy prides himself on his strong relationships with South Central youth. He knows everyone by name, and he encourages local kids to train with him in clowning instead of succumbing to the ever-present lure of money and status via drugs and gangs. He is Ã¼ber-positive and supportive -- a father figure to neighborhood children. Late in the film, Tommy breaks down in tears after discovering that his house has been robbed. As he cries, he wonders aloud who would do this to him, considering all of the time and commitment he's given to his neighborhood.
While working with local kids, Big Tommy developed his own form of dance, called "Clowning," in which dancers wore loud costumes and colorful face paint while performing explosive, jerky movements to hip-hop and dance music. The dance was created, in part, as a physical reaction to 1992's L.A. race riots.
As Tommy's students grew older and dispersed, some began forming different groups, in which they practiced "Krumping" (a more individualized, intense version of Clowning). The two brigades (the Clowns and the Krumpers) share a friendly-ish rivalry, and their peers fill Los Angeles' huge Great Western Forum to watch them compete in the Battlezone Competition, a major dance-off.
One of the Krumpers succinctly explains how dancing helps him transform anger into art, releasing aggression without resorting to violence. Another Krumper, the gorgeous "Miss Prissy," seems sad as she talks about the differences between South Central and Hollywood, where she regularly attends ballet classes. She says that she -- and most of her South Central peers -- feel less safe in Hollywood than in their own surroundings, as flawed as those surroundings may seem.
And flawed they are. Aside from street brutality, many of the young people have family members in jail, in gangs, or selling drugs on the street. (Some, as LaChapelle told Salon.com, have parents who are OG, "original gangster," founding members of the Bloods and Crips.) They live amid a constant threat of violence; they've grown accustomed to it, though they're not happy about it.
Viewers don't escape this violence. During the course of filming, a local 15-year-old and her friend are gunned down while walking to the grocery store. The girl, a former Krumper, is a beloved local fixture, and though LaChapelle tapes bits of her funeral, he doesn't bother to explore her death's aftermath. The tragedy is gingerly skimmed over before the director gets back to dancing, the subject at hand.
And that's LaChapelle's biggest downfall: his tendency to stick with what's pretty, fantastical and visually alluring, while glossing over the meat of the story. He's clearly drawn to bright colors, vivid personalities, and the fluidity of movement -- all of which make sense, given his high-profile career as an Andy Warhol protÃ©gÃ© and celebrity photographer -- but his neglect of the bigger social and political issues at work is a disservice to the kids he shoots, as well as to his viewers.
One of the most bewildering moments in the film is near the beginning, when LaChapelle decides to intersperse old footage of African tribal dancers with modern clips of Krumpers tearing it up. The racial implications are shocking -- all the more so because LaChapelle doesn't feel it necessary to label the tribal clips (which resemble archival anthropological footage), to put them in context or even just inform us when and where they're from.
What does he, a middle-aged, gay white male, think said footage reveals about the African-American community? What was his aim in including those clips? In a January interview with Heather Havrilesky of Salon.com, LaChapelle claims of the Krumpers, "They've had no African studies. They've never seen African dance. They've never seen African face paint. It's in their blood."
Offensive? Surely. But much of Rize is debatable -- which, in some ways, is what makes it worth seeing. The questions LaChapelle raises in the film aren't easy, and they aren't answered. We might never know what his motivations were for entering that South Central community, bringing exposure and fame to an underprivileged group of youth. Was this intimate look at their lives educational or exploitative -- or both?
We also may never know what LaChapelle's young subjects really thought about the project -- how they felt about being filmed, dancing, in their element -- by a wealthy, successful white artist. Did their lives change for the better afterward? What did LaChapelle do with Rize's profits (if there were any)?
And why did LaChapelle leave himself mute and invisible in his own film? He never appears on camera once, even to narrate. This is a directorial decision that comes off as a shrugging-off of accountability (though I suspect he meant it as a way to give his subjects stronger voices, more power).
All of these questions left me frustrated and disturbed -- though none of them invalidate the glowing reviews mentioned at the start of this story. I, too, found Rize to be visually sparkling -- an infectious "knockout" that was beautiful in certain ways. It would have been more so, though, if LaChapelle hadn't chosen the easy way out.
If nothing else, maybe Rize will become an addition to our culture's ongoing, though under-acknowledged, dialogue about race and class (and art, and hope) in America.
Laura Barcella is AlterNet's front page editor.