Home Video Hovel: Flex Is Kings, by Craig Schroeder
At the risk of aging myself nearly seventy years: I’m not up on dance trends. I never know. I’m always the last one to find out. I’m a guy who was involved in a Harlem Shake video at least two months too late and the only dance move I’ve mastered is the Drinking-A-Beer-While-I-Dance-At-A-Wedding-To-Show-I’m-Not-Taking-This-Dancing-Business-Seriously Shuffle. Given this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I knew nothing about “flexing”, the type of dance featured in the documentary Flex Is Kings. Having watched it, I now know (sort of); but despite being about flex dancers in Brooklyn, Flex is Kings is really a film about the highs and lows of chasing a life in a creative field.
I know what flexing isn’t. It’s not break-dancing. It’s not traditional hip-hop. It’s not boxing And it’s not improv comedy. But it does combine all of those things. Flexing is a style of dance from East Brooklyn (by way of Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands), that combines pop-locking, arm contortions, the footwork of Michael Jackson and the bravado of Mick Jagger. But the most defining and awe-inspiring characteristic of flexing, and one that makes the subjects of Flex is Kings so interesting, is that the routines usually have a loose outline and even a theme, but are almost entirely improvised. Flexing is the Curb Your Enthusiasm of the dance world. But even more than that, flexing has set ups and “punch lines”, as the dancers call them, which usually involve setting up some kind of prop to incorporate into the routine.
Flex is Kings focuses on a number of Brooklyn dancers, with a concentration on two: Flizzo, an overweight father trying to make it as a dancer, and Jay Donn, an eccentric showman who is the film’s purest delight. He’s strange, loud and sweet; watching Jay Donn is like watching a child walk through the gates of Disney World for the first time. Flizzo struggles; his relationship with his child’s mother is strained and he doesn’t have a job. He wants to make it as a dancer, and he’s very good, but he doesn’t know what that success looks like. Jay Donn does; he’s recently been hired by an independent theater company to play the title role in a retrofitted, dance-centric production of Pinocchio. Judging by the number of peripheral dancers featured in the film, it seems like Flex Is Kings was originally intended to be a wider study of the flexing dance movement. However, directors Micheal Beach Nichols and Deidre Schoo wisely chose to focus on the lives of two struggling dancers on either end of the spectrum. And by doing this, not only did Nichols and Schoo make a documentary about a culturally significant dance movement, but they’ve also fashioned one of the finest commentaries on the nature of pursuing a life in the creative arts.
Flex is Kings is a film not entirely about dance. Dancing is the medium in which the film operates, but the thesis of the film focuses more on the beauty of creativity. By using a creative outlet that is visually stimulating and engaging, Flex is Kings is able to highlight the struggles and euphoria that comes with the creative process. And it doesn’t hurt that the film itself is also a work of art. The film often breaks from the narrative to inject non sequitur sequences of Flizzo and Jay Donn dancing. And the cinematography, combined with weight of their performances, makes for stunning cinema. One scene in particular–in which Flizzo does an avian-themed routine, alone on a Brooklyn rooftop, and concludes by releasing a live bird from his mouth–is as great a piece of documentary filmmaking as any I’ve seen before.
Flex Is Kings also provides insightful commentary on the storied trend of white America appropriating black culture. Flexing, as it exists in Flex Is Kings, is an art form almost entirely specific to black neighborhoods in East Brooklyn. And in those neighborhoods, the dancers are celebrities. Flexing is a thriving culture in Brooklyn; complete with organized competitions, fans and peculiar hand motions that signify a particularly great dance move. Flexing has a symbiotic relationship with the black culture in East Brooklyn. Jay Donn is approached by a theater company specifically because of his dance style, which is copied and performed (to varying degrees of success) by the other dancers. When the company lands a high-profile gig in Europe, one of the other actors (in a cast of, from what I can tell, all white people) tells Jay Donn that the audience (also all white people) is going to be blown away by Jay Donn’s fresh, new style. The eventual Pinnochio performance in Europe is juxtaposed with Flizzo’s performance in a neighborhood dance competition back in Brooklyn, held in a shoddy rec center (which presents another thread of social commentary when the owners of the rec center increase the rental cost when they realize the event would predominantly feature young, low-income, black men dancing). On one hand, it’s a rather beautiful and triumphant moment for Jay Donn, but it’s an unnerving sight, watching something so rooted to black culture in Brooklyn, delivered, en masse, for appropriation by white culture. In a year that’s given us Iggy Azalea, I’m certainly not breaking any new ground by saying white people have a history of stealing and appropriating black culture as their own; but to see the machinations of racial appropriation, as it happens in Flex Is Kings, brings it into incredible focus.
There’s more to Flex Is Kings than perhaps even the filmmakers realize. It’s a beautiful film about art and the pursuit of artists. But it’s also culturally significant, highlighting the beauty that comes out of black culture in America and how the very identity of that beauty can be stripped away. The only negative thing I have to say about Flex is Kings is that I’m the same dancer now as before I watched it.