"Our Flag is Hip Hop"

Planet B-Boy and postnational street battles


At the beginning of the documentary Planet B-Boy, as several hip-hop veterans offer a breezy history of breakdance, a not-to-be-messed-with French street dancer describes a transformational filmic experience. "Flashdance," he says, and pauses to hold back tears, "It's personally emotional for me." A Japanese b-boy, recalling his first viewing of the film, is reduced to "wow." An earnest German promoter confirms that the 1983 film, which includes scenes with the breakdance pioneers Rock Steady Crew, had pan-European influence. In bringing an urban American art form to Seoul, Paris, and Capetown, Flashdance planted the seeds of a subculture all over the map. Jennifer Beals, apparently, is an effective conduit for the culture of the South Bronx.

The term b-boy identifies hip-hop-obsessed dancers who have devoted themselves to breakdancing. Today, that word holds currency in a number of languages, and Benson Lee's Planet B-Boy follows French, Japanese, Korean and American dance crews from their home countries to a global competition in Braunshweig, Germany. Whereas The Freshest Kids, another recent documentary on b-boy culture, located the history and early evolution of breakdancing in the black and Puerto Rican communities of the South Bronx, Lee is less interested in where that culture came from than where it has gone. New York figures only as a dusty museum for the form's history.

Instead of New York's Rock Steady Crew, then, we meet Phase-T, a crew from the working class suburb of Chelles, France. The crew includes nine solid French North Africans and one tiny white kid dubbed "Lil' Kev," a freakishly talented dancer whom they toss around like a beach ball. Sitting beside her son, Lil' Kev's mother explains what she first thought of his new friends in hip-hop: "noir, noir, noir!" As he cringes beneath a cocked baseball cap, she explains that she's not as racist anymore, and she no longer fears his friends or his chosen life trajectory. But she and her husband would be "very proud" if he decided to be a fireman instead.

Battle of the Year, the competition that grounds the film, forces a post-national phenomenon into a nationalized framework. Preliminary competitions take place at the country level, so each team bears the responsibility of representing its respective country. Phase-T is a team of chiefly African descent that has mastered an American art form to perform under a French flag. As charming a story of globalization as that might be, there is something profoundly incongruous about performing as anti-authoritarian and expressive an art as breakdancing under any flag at all. That tension emerges throughout the film, as b-boys alternately embrace the competitive playbook handed them and struggle under its weight. "We can't say the phrase 'French culture' really represents us," says one of Phase-T's dancers. "Our flag is hip-hop."

Cho Sung Gook knows something about national pride; his disapproving, working class father works as a flag distributor for the Korean government "to help establish our national identity." And for Cho's crew, Last for One, the burdens of national identity are something like a ticking clock. Each will have to serve Korea's required two years of military service, and like any athletes at the top of their form, they won't be able to simply pick up where they left off. "You lose everything you work for when you go to the army," explains a crew member, "so we have to take it to the extreme before we go."

The crew feels dismissed and ignored by mainstream Korea, by parents who think they are "cleaning the floor or something" when they're handspringing through subways. And given their living conditions—six to a room in Seoul—cleaning floors might seem a safer financial strategy than hoping that Korea suddenly starts paying to watch its breakdancers.

Ambivalent as the dancers are, they're clearly brimming with national pride as they gear up to compete with Japan. When the film was shot, the Koreans were the reigning world champions, a showy Korean crew called Gamblerz having won the year before. The Gamblerz 2005 show may qualify as the oddest performance in the history of hip-hop. The crew splits into two groups and reenacts "the history of Korea" through six minutes of b-boy battling, one side representing the South and one the North. In the end, the sides are reconciled, and the crew springs into the eerily perfect synchrony that only the Koreans seem able to pull off.

Cho's father is deeply worried about his son's financial prospects as a dancer; an American crew member's father, by contrast, simply advises him to "rip that shit." The locus of American breakdancing has shifted to Las Vegas—arguably where natural born showmen belong—and most of the crew is Hispanic. The Americans, too, feel the pull of national pride, and their relationship to national identity is no less complex. They don't seem to register any dissonance when one of them argues that "we created this thing" and "it's time to bring it back to the U.S." Nor should they: That the descendents of Hispanic immigrants from the Southwest are defending the mantle of a culture developed by blacks in the Bronx of the 70s makes a kind of sense.

Like any great, populist dance film, Planet B-Boy ends with a battle. For nearly two decades, unremarkable Braunschweig has been home to the "battle of the year," where crews from 20 or so nations fling themselves across a stage in tightly choreographed interpretations of American street battle. All share a superhuman athleticism; they're as comfortable windmilling around on the palms of their hands as on the soles of their feet, jumping backward onto their forearms and springing forward in synchronized slow motion. The French, in the words of one promoter, have an unmatched sensitivity for music and flow. The Japanese dream up the most innovative, conceptually complex show. The Americans have a knack for individualizing their dancers, shaping characters out of movement. The Koreans dominate the competition with a combination of robot-like synchrony and gymnastic prowess. And the founder of the competition, the guy in charge of the logistics? German.

Clearly, Americans no longer own the dance. Some of the most poignant moments of the film come as Korean crew perform in Germany and the camera lingers on the Vegas crew's faces. Their eyes are tinged with fear, their mouths slightly open. Afterward, one manages to offer a half-hearted pep talk. Their show is just "different," he explains, "Hopefully the judges don't just want to see…some amazing shit."

The judges do want to see some amazing shit, which is why the Korean team "Last for One" emerges victorious. A first place finish at the competition at last gives Cho's crew some commercial viability, and in the film's last scenes, the crew is shown flipping its way through shows in front of Korean crowds, at the World Cup, and—improbably—in a commercial for Korean tourism.

Planet B-Boy starts out as a film about the postnational flag of hip-hop, but its avatars are too adaptive to let a tidy narrative of global unity win the day. In the end, they manage to stretch the boundaries of old identities, finding room for a bastardized version of an American ghetto art form in the very definition of contemporary Korean culture. It's surely possible to argue that a once-defiant art form is really and truly dead when it has been vetted by the Korean tourism board. But as one of breakdancing's pioneers describes hip hop's early days, "We were naming moves on the spot, making up the rules as we went along."

When the old moves go stale, new ones emerge. There will be more b-boys, from more cultures, to dream up new rules in post-national street battles to come.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.