Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 07/09/05 14:25:49

"Dancin' in the Mean Streets."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Standing out amongst the many fine documentaries being released in 2005, three of the most fascinating, and exhilarating, are ones that focus on a number of unique communities of remarkable people – young (and some not-so-young) adults and children for whom creative physical expression is a means of coping with feelings of loss, grief, and rage, a way they can take charge of, and thus enhance the quality of, their own personal lives, even when they can’t always change the world around them.

The stars of Marilyn Agrelo’s delightful Mad Hot Ballroom are three classrooms of eleven-year-olds, urban school kids from wildly diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds who were introduced to the world of competitive ballroom dancing when the NYC school district brought them into an elective (now mandatory) program to help them cope with the tragedy of 9/11/2001. That film is a joyous, often hilarious, chronicle of the transformation of these youngsters from gawky children to poised “ladies and gentlemen” making the journey from being reluctant participants to enthusiastic competitors as they hone their dancing skills, forge new – often unlikely – friendships, and watch their own self-confidence soar.

The courageous gladiators profiled in Henry Alex Rubin’s and Dana Adam Shapiro’s Murderball are the fiercely competitive, ultra-athletic members of Team USA and Team Canada, Xtreme rugby players who just happen to have been rendered quadriplegic, who face off against each other from custom-made chariot-like wheelchairs. As raucous and heart-stoppingly suspenseful as any of the best sports movies can be, Murderball is a wildly entertaining, good-humored, and inspiring look at the lives of men who smash – along with each other – any possible preconceptions about disability, proving along the way that the handicapped can live lives as rich and meaningful as – often even more so than – their able-bodied counterparts.

Rounding out the trio of rousing documentaries is Dave LaChapelle’s Rize, a portrait of a community under siege – in this case, the perennially civil-war-torn South Central Los Angeles.

Opening with footage of the 1965 Watts riots, segueing to the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King debacle, LaChapelle brings us to the present day and an introduction to Tommy Johnson, a/k/a Tommy the Clown, a reformed drug dealer-turned-birthday party clown, who brought clowning and dancing to South Central in the wake of the King verdicts and riots. As Tommy and the movements’ practitioners explain the evolution of the two connected dance movements known as “clowning” and “krumping,” we come to understand that what began as a positive outlet for a community imploding upon itself, has evolved into a way of living for many young adults and children– an astonishing means of expressing pain, frustration, and rage through artistic movement rather than violence.

When he started his clown business, in which he incorporated his own energetic brand of dancing, Tommy encouraged party guests and neighbors to join in. From those origins evolved the establishment of Tommy’s Hip-Hop Dance Academy, where kids painted their own faces and learned how to dance and entertain crowds. From that level, students formed their own troupes and created their own artistic variations of the dances, and krumping – a far more sexual and aggressive version of clowning – was born.

Early in the film, a note explains that “the footage has not been sped up in any way” – a good thing to know. The most utterly entertaining segments in Rize are those in which we see the wildly energetic and fiercely competitive clowns and krumpers, in full makeup, frenetically whirling, twirling, contorting themselves, and pummeling the air – and mock-pummeling each other – in ways that seem barely possible.

Still, LaChapelle and the dancers – street kids who go by the names of Dragon, Tight Eyez, Lil C, Ms. Prissy, and El Nino, among others who are spotlighted – make it clear that krumping and clowning, while movements that have become integral to their lives and that they expect to stand the test of time, are forms of release and not resolutions.

Returning home from the Battle Zone, a forum he created for the dance competitions that are performed in front of huge crowds, Tommy the Clown cries when he sees that his home has been broken into and ransacked.

One of the dancers points out that kids in better neighborhoods have dance studios and performing arts academies available to them. “There’s nothing like that for us here,” he observes, poignantly.

Sadly, a portion of the film that belongs to one of the highlighted dancers, 15-year-old Quinesha, is one dedicated to her remembrance: She was shot and killed in a random act of street violence, while walking to the store with a friend.

Still, Tommy, who says of himself, “I’m the richest man on earth, and I haven’t got a dime,” can take great pride in his contribution to the troubled lives of South Central L.A.’s street youth and the creation of an art that buoys the spirits of a community in turmoil. “Making smiles where there were no smiles” might not be the resolution to the world’s problems – but, in this situation, it’s a mighty powerful start.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.