To Live and Clown in L.A.
You’ve heard of the great war between the Los Angeles gangs the Crips and the Bloods, right? But have you heard of the longstanding rivalry between the Clowns and the Krumpers? Neither had I, and I felt a bit like slinking down in my seat in embarrassment while watching Rize, the powerfully moving new documentary about this Southern California dance craze. That’s right: I said “dance craze,” and it’s so huge that opposing “gangs” of Clowns and Krumpers compete in dance duels in meets called “BattleZones.” By the time Rize arrives at BattleZone V, which takes place in a huge arena packed with wild, screaming fans, I’m thinking: There have been four of these things already? Am I just a hopelessly unhip white girl never to have heard of this before? How could word of something so enormous not have gotten out?
Well, word to all us unhip types is out now, with David LaChapelle’s Rize. Expanding his award-winning short, “Krumped,” LaChapelle, an acclaimed photographer whose eclectic and bizarre images have graced the pages of such cultural touchstones as Vanity Fair, GQ, and Rolling Stone, turns his discriminating eye on an inner-city fad that is at once almost violently spontaneous and yet steeped in ritualistic totemism, a declaration that culture is vibrant and evolving in a place — the Watts section of L.A. — that it wouldn’t be too far amiss to suggest is doing its best to kill itself. LaChapelle captures, vividly and unforgettably, the expressive emotion and channeled rage that “krumping” and “clowning” represent, but more than that, he imparts a sense of how vital this “mere” dance craze is to the spirit of the community.
And yes, I said “Clowns” and “clowning.” It all started about a decade ago, just after the Rodney King riots tore up Watts, that Tommy the Clown made his debut as one of those rainbow-‘froed, balloon-sculpture-making entertainers who show up at kids’ birthday parties and scare the crap out of the little tykes. As an addition to his repertoire, Tommy threw in some wacky but primally appealing dancing, getting down with his bad clown self and inviting the kiddies to join in, and the rest, as they say, is history. The kids loved it and grew up to dance the Tommy way — partly through their attendance at the Tommy the Clown Hip-Hop Clown Academy. Some kept the faith, engaging in “the stripper dance,” with all its sexual overtones and rampant athleticism, while others schismed off into “krumping,” a much angrier, far more tribalistic assertion of individuality and I-am-here-ness.
Now, I think LaChapelle might forgive an unhip white gal like myself for harboring the sneaking suspicion, during the first half of the film or so, that I was being had, that someone was pulling the honky chick’s leg. Clowns? Dancing? And this is culturally significant? Krumpers? Who perform dances that mimic being patted down and beaten up by a cop on the trunk of a car? Come on: someone is having a laugh at the express of gullible bleeding-heart white liberals, right? Right?
You know what? I don’t care. If this is all fictional — not that I’m suggesting that it is (but if it is, I want it noted that this bleeding-heart white liberal was not so completely gullible as to not be suspicious) (not that I’m suggesting this is fake) (but it could be) — if this is all fictional, fine. Because it makes for a damn good story, true or fictional: The dancers who have turned gang warfare into a contest where no one gets hurt and everyone gets a good workout. The kids who saw their parents and grandparents burn down their own homes and stores in the 1960s and the 1990s and have transformed that same fury into something symbolic and are having fun with it. The open arms of the Clowns and the Krumpers, where young and old, guys and girls, fatties and skinnies — heck, even Asians and white guys, if they’ve got the chops — are welcomed.
Rize isn’t so gung-ho that it pretends that Watts is in the middle of a total turnaround — bad stuff happens here, and it’s enough to break your heart. But the hope and the stubbornness to get through it is what clowning and krumping are all about, and LaChapelle makes sure you leave the theater with a spring in your step and the urge to shake what you got, because life is short and uncertain, so why not?