Vérité means different things to different directors. Celebrity portrait-maker and video director David LaChapelle’s stylized, prop-laden images of his mostly celebrity subjects often reveal larger truths. His shots of Billy Corgan as a fetus or Devon Aoki as a hot-pantsed fishmonger have defined these stars so completely that one strains to remember anything else about them. Still, though he’s known for playful pop shamanism rather than serious sociology, Rize, his independently financed doc about South Central L.A.’s krump dance scene, exudes the conceptual commitment that has defined his more sober portraits of performance artists, drag queens, medical transsexuals. In these cases, the consummate ad man uses his gifts to tell beautiful stories. LaChapelle, who has a certain affection for this paper (it was the first to buy one of his photos), spoke with the Voice from Los Angeles.
“We were led to Tommy the Clown by force of gravity,” the director says of the rainbow-wigged subject who anchors his film. Tipped off by producer-choreographers Rich and Tone Talauega, LaChapelle found Tommy, a neighborhood impresario who began dancing in response to the 1992 riots. Tommy’s act became a birthday party business, garnering imitator “clown crews,” kids called krumpers, who painted their faces like harlequin warriors, danced in the street, and rejected gang violence. When LaChapelle saw this gymnastic combo of spaz attack, pole dance, fight club feint, and instinctive butoh, he was moved. Introducing himself only as David, he began filming Tommy; his charismatic sidekick Larry; the deep-thinking Dragon, who raised his siblings when his mom was on drugs; Miss Prissy, an ambitious, Fame-caliber dancer; and Baby Tight Eyez, a troubled gang orphan and musical prodigy.
More vérité than you might expect, Rize is still a mythmaking venture. But the director defends his framing decisions. He doesn’t include interviews with kids outside the krumping movement or kids in gangs because, he says, “I wasn’t there to film people in the destructive process,” adding, “These kids are from the gang families. Their fathers are founding members of the Crips and Bloods. Some of their mothers were in prison. You don’t find harder families.” Keeping his focus on these particular kids, LaChapelle does not go out of his way to connect their krumping to any break dancing tradition either. “These kids think of break dancing as a whole other generation that has nothing to do with what they do,” he says. “I saw the similarities because I’d seen the first break dancers in New York in 1982. Trini López showed me kids break dancing and I went to the Roxy and the Funhouse and stuff. But they just don’t have that reference.”
In LaChapelle’s iconographic universe, a more interesting move is splicing in clips of African tribal ritual. “The first time the kids saw the African archival footage,” recalls the director, “their reaction was jubilation. People were literally punching the air, screaming, and hugging me.” Earlier in the film, dancer Dragon says of krumping, “It’s in our DNA,” a comment LaChapelle says inspired him to look for the footage. “They all said, ‘Where’d you get that idea?’ ” says LaChapelle, “and I’m like, ‘You got the idea.’ ” He was struck that “they didn’t have any African studies in the schools or African art in their houses, or any reference.” He says the sequence was for him one of the most important parts of the film.
Less important, he says, was the sexuality of his subjects. Where another documentarian might ask how dancing clowns go over in a relatively macho, homophobic hip-hop culture, LaChapelle keeps sexuality off the table. “They’re teenagers.” he says. “They have their sexuality.” Rize also provides a rare glimpse into the function of religion in the community. “Every other storefront is a church,” says LaChapelle. “The kids started going to church more in the course of the two years. It just became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. Seeing the shots of their praise dancing brings tears to my eyes.”
Maybe because LaChapelle avoids ambulance chasing, the shocking robbery and horrific slaying that muscle into the film bring everyday injustice into powerful focus. But, says LaChapelle, “I didn’t want to make this sad little art film.” He continues, “I just wanted the film to make people feel the way I felt when I first saw these kids dance.”
LaChapelle says some have questioned his motives: “It’s like, ‘Oh the rich gay photographer goes into the ghetto to exploit the poor children.’ But you know what? These kids want people to see their work. As artists, they want people to see what they do.” Some may also wonder why the film is soundtracked by overlaid music rather than the music the kids actually danced to. LaChapelle brushes it off with a shrug. His enthusiasm, like their dancing, is a force of nature. “I approach these kids as Olympic athletes rather than as disenfranchised or sad.” he says. “Because they’re not. They’re not sad. Yes, they are oppressed. This is a story about people breaking out of oppression.”