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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Rising Above Adversity
by Geoffrey D. Roberts

There are only two choices available to most kids living in the ghetto or in South Central Los Angeles. They either learn the art of "clowning" or "krumping" from Thomas "Tommy the Clown" Johnson, one of the subjects of Rize, a brilliant documentary, or join a gang -- and possibly end up dead.  

Johnson, born into a South Central home, spent most of his early adulthood in and out of lock ups and in trouble with the police. His life was going nowhere when he got a last minute call in 1992 from a friend who needed an entertainer for a birthday party. Low on cash, Johnson accepted the call. After the party, he realized that his clown character could be spun off into a business. He soon became recognized throughout L.A. as an icon and role model for kids.

Johnson then took one step further in trying to influence kids and teens with his love of hip-hop, his clown character and dance. In response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he pioneered a brand new form of self-expression through free-style dance, aggressive movement, athleticism and ancient tribal influences he dubbed "Clowning."

Johnson would dress as his Tommy the Clown character and have each of his teenage and child followers put on tribal war paint like ancient warriors on the path to battle. Instead of battling in gangs or street hustling and getting into trouble with the police, the kids would form their own tribes, dress up, and take to the streets to out-perform, out-think, out-last competition and to practice their skills while bonding with one another in a supportive, creative, fun, family environment.

Two of the kids, Lil C and Tight Eyez, took skills learned from Tommy the Clown and expanded on them. They formed their own troupes and coined the term "Krumping" for what they were doing. With the art they perfected, the teens knew they became the antithesis of the hip-hop culture,  money, cars, girls, bling bling, and sometimes violence intertwined in messages on TV and in newspapers.

All the dancers here are involved in each otherís lives. Johson uses a no-nonsense approach as he goes after kids who are not performing in school and are on the road to trouble. He straightens them out by threatening to kick them out of the troupes with his "No more 'clowning' or 'krumping' for you" philosophy. For many, Johnson is the father figure most of them lack as well as their confidante.

Knowing he had to get kids early to keep them off the street and away from gangs, drugs, and criminal activity, Tommy the Clown invented the "Battle Zone" where Krumpers and Clowns can duke it out on the dance floor in competition. In 2003, Johnson put on a sold-out night at the Los Angeles Forum. To this day, he continues with the battles at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy every third Saturday of the month.

In this fascinating documentary, we are introduced to several dancers, including Lil C who was born into a single parent home. Sacrificing everything, his mother found a way to send him to private schools. As a result, Lil C never got into gangs or trouble with the law. No stranger to tragedy, he saw several members of his family die from disease, violence and suicide. Viewers will be inspired by what he conquered and has done with his life both personally and professionally since the movie. He could have been dragged down by personal tragedy but used it as motivation to rise above those circumstances instead. All of the characters in this documentary must rise above something, hence the title Rize.

Dragon,  a.k.a Jason Green, is another of the main characters  in Rize. He played an important role in shaping "Clowning" and "Krumping" into the force they are today in Los Angeles -- while also gaining momentum internationally though music videos. Dragon was already a dancer long before he met Tommy the Clown at age 19. A military brat born in Germany, he was performing in a rival troupe called Platnum Clowns. Although he also carries a lot of baggage, the end result of how he's used his talents will inspire many who think they can't make it because of their background, surroundings and lack of money. Such people only need to borrow a page from the book of the troubled but aspiring artists showcased in Rize.

Marquisa Gardner, known to all as Ms. Prissy and the "First Lady of Krumping," was the first person to lend credibility to what Johnson and crew were trying to create. The wheels in her head are always in motion. Having danced since the age of four and being a ballet and modern dance instructor prior to meeting Tommy the Clown, she got the party started by adding flair and moves that were not there before. Johnson recruited Gardner for her knowledge as well as for her timing, ability and name as a recognized teacher.

Tight Eyez, one of the founders of "krumping,"is extremely important for the part he played in trying to move everything forward. He dreamed for years, decades even, of inventing a style of dance that would get everyone pumped up. On a selfish level, he was also interested as an artist and CEO, wanting eventually to be an industry giant behind an internationally renowned "Clowning" and/or "Krumping School."

Tight Eyez and his brother Baby Tight Eyez are also key players in Rize. They never saw the wrong end of the law and seized the opportunity to learn what others could teach them. They are deeply religious and, in a sense, follow the same path as Dragon. 

Considering  the unprecedented access given to the Rize filmmakers, one would think this was a massive undertaking. In reality, it's a testament to a great deal of talent stemming from five people who used the schools, dwellings, and neighborhood of the Clowners and Krumpers as a canvas on which to paint their picture. As a result of their efforts and friendship with their subjects, they cracked an underground movement and broke down racial, cultural, and social barriers.  

Hardly anyone outside of South Central Los Angeles would have known about this significant and important art form if it were not for Christina Aguilera using moves from Krumping in a music video that Rize director David LaChapelle helmed.  A shorter documentary on the subject -- called Krumped -- by the same filmmakers turned heads and earned awards in 2004. This movie should do the same.

(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated "P'g-13" for suggestive content, drug references, language and brief nudity.)

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