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Friday, July 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Rize" dances its way through mean streets of L.A.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Rize," a documentary by David LaChapelle. 85 minutes. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content, drug references, language and brief nudity. Several theaters.

Beginning with footage of Los Angeles riots (Watts in 1965, Rodney King in 1992) and ending with a dedication to a bright-eyed teenager killed by random gunfire, David LaChapelle's powerful street-dance documentary "Rize" never lets us forget that its subjects are dancing in a war zone. But dance they do, in a kind of controlled frenzy, with music throbbing and limbs whirling and swaying and pulsing to the beat. A note tells us early on that "the footage has not been sped up in any way," and it's a good thing we've been advised: These dancers at times seem computer-generated, moving in ways that seem barely possible.

Dancing is secondary to survival on these L.A. streets, and Tommy Johnson, aka Tommy the Clown, has created his own form of both. A neighborhood celebrity — "I'm the richest man on earth, and I haven't got a dime," he says — Johnson has long donned clown makeup and baggy costumes to entertain the children of South Central. He created his own style of street dance after the King riots, wanting to show anger through movement, rather than violence.

"Rize" tracks the evolution of Johnson's dance, first called "clowning," then "krumping" as it was picked up by teenagers, who began forming into troupes. Soon kids spoke of wanting to be clowns rather than Crips or Bloods, and Johnson founded the Battle Zone, a forum for dance competition and for kids who'd rather dance than fight. Much of the film is devoted to a Battle Zone contest, with two teams — Clowns and Krumpers — entering like hooded gladiators, dueling without weapons or touch.

There's no happy ending in "Rize"; dancing hasn't made the streets any safer. A youth in the movie casually mentions that his grandfather shot him, and the camera lingers on a homemade memorial poster with a picture of 15-year-old Quinesha, a dancer who was shot while walking to the corner store with a friend. (Even Johnson, who seems revered by his neighbors, isn't immune. Late in the film, he sobs upon entering his ransacked house: Someone, knowing he'd be at Battle Zone, broke in and trashed it.)

But in capturing the freedom of movement that these dancers have learned, LaChapelle (a photographer and music-video director making his feature-documentary debut) seems to find a ray of hope. We see South Central residents dancing at church; rapid-fire close-ups of intricately made-up faces; small children laughing at the "krumpers" and swaying along with the beat; even a middle-age white couple who at first look uncomfortable upon seeing a clowning party but soon are grinning along with the children. That's the purpose of the clown groups, we're told by a member: "Making smiles where there were no smiles."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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