We’ve come a long way from the b-boying, beatboxing, freestyle origins of hip hop in the South Bronx. Modern conceptions of hip hop favor 99 Problems over Fight(ing) the Power or Fuck(ing) tha Police. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with this evolution (and certainly, the staunch political threads of rap haven’t fully disappeared), but as with any movement that has attained longevity, hip-hop culture has been appropriated and reappropriated by a (predominantly white) mainstream industry into something far more conventional and commercial than its roots would suggest.
What Adam Sjöberg’s Shake the Dust sets out to do is trace the legacy of the early New York and LA rap scene to various youth groups around the world who have appropriated b-boy culture into their own geographical contexts, from Yemen to Columbia, to Uganda and Cambodia. Between beguiling footage of cyphers (freestyle street dancing) against striking urban backdrops (the title is a literal reference to the dirt clouds that are kicked up by dancers), the youths in these disenfranchised neighborhoods discuss their motivation for getting involved with hip-hop culture. Sjöberg effectively draws a clear line of causality between the early social justice origins of the South Bronx to these young dancers.
But trying to capture an entire global movement is where Sjöberg’s documentary loses focus. This is a common problem among many films of this ilk. It’s an ensemble-style structure, cutting from character to character (and subsequently, from nation to nation), periodically returning to check in with their stories. But there is simply too much ground to cover in any significant depth, nor does it ever feel as immersive as it should. There is enough potential material here for a series of movies. For example, one could make an entire film on the life of the 7-year-old daughter of a competitive b-boy, who herself is dominating in competitions for her age-group. Why did she follow in her father’s footsteps? What are her prospects? These are briefly touched upon in Shake the Dust, but not in any satisfying detail.
This can make evaluating a social-issues documentary difficult—do you judge it for its valiant consciousness-raising goals, or as a piece of filmmaking? As a work of journalism, Shake the Dust is commendable. As a film, it doesn’t quite hold up. But despite its structural problems, Shake the Dust is at times stunning to look at. Sjöberg has entered these worlds and imbued the dance sequences with as much dynamism and vitality as a Step Up film (in the best sense possible).