Judging by the trailers, Bodied, picked up by YouTube while it riled up everyone on the festival circuit in 2017, would be easy to dismiss as simply a celebration of rap battle culture. But through the lens of that competitive world, Joseph Kahn — Taylor Swift’s go-to music video director — and writer Kid Twist (née Alex Larsen) set out to annihilate political correctness by interrogating racial appropriation and faux-outrage culture. It’s an absolute mic drop of a movie.
Bodied’s opening scene throws us right in the middle of a battlefield where hearts break, souls get crushed, and minds are blown, as two men destroy each other with razor-sharp wordplay in a rap battle. Kahn’s camera moves in a fluid dance that whips and spins around as words get thrown around like knives, with clever visual and auditory aids accompanying the bars — gunshot sound effects accompany the many gun metaphors.
Between the vulgar showdown and the loud crowd is where we meet Adam Merking (Calum Worthy). A slim, shady, redheaded Berkeley grad student, Adam translates every lightning-fast vulgarity to his mortified vegan girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). In a hilariously meta set-up the film’s social commentary, the gawky, white kid eventually approaches rap battle veteran Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) for help on his thesis titled “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-word in Battle Rap.” Behn jokes about the kid being just another white boy looking for an “n-word pass”, but then Adam accepts a challenge by a cocky rapper looking for an Old West-type draw (the punk even calls himself Billy Pistols).
To the surprise of everyone, Adam kills at rap battling, even as he himself becomes the target of the cultural insensitivity he thought he understood from the outside. Behn latches on, becoming a mentor for his burgeoning career, as both set their minds on taking over the competitive rap battle world, to the dismay of Maya and Adam’s privileged father (famous author Professor Merking, played by Anthony Michael Hall). From there, the hyper-stylized satire dismantles white, liberal privilege.
[Ed. note: the rest of this article contains mild spoilers for Bodied]
“Critic-proof” is a term loosely thrown, but Larsen’s script for Bodied is as close as it gets by anticipating and dismantling every argument that could be made against it. Whether it’s the negative portrayal of women in the film, or the seemingly positive use of offensive slurs, the film confronts the gut critiques of our socially aware age head-on. “I don’t see how anybody could be a good person when they spend all of their time thinking of horrible things to say about someone,” Maya tells Adam in the very first scene, and Larsen uses those very horrible things to get at an answer, or at least try to.
The film, which touts Adi Shankar and Eminem as producers, poses a question that artists — from rappers to stand-up comedians to filmmakers — have all grappled with: when does something stop being art and become just offensive? Can context alter the impact or intent of a word?
Bodied struggles with finding a clear answer, but provides enough hints and arguments from both sides to instigate the viewer’s opinion. While discussing whether Asian or Latinx rappers can use the n-word, Behn warns Adam that “There’s a difference between using the word and referencing the word.” He makes the case that it’s your intent that gives the word its power, and that your audacity towards crossing a line is what makes the slurs hurt.
While Kahn’s kinetic energy makes Bodied a pure stream of entertainment, there are some genuinely powerful performances packed into it. Worthy manages a dueling persona that revels in the attention he’s getting as a battle rapper, then hides behind his harmless nerdy schtick when confronted over his bigotry. Hats off to the film for allowing us to outright hate Adam, even if we are supposed to follow him in his journey and root for his victories.
Similarly, his group of hip-hop warriors all crackle. Besides Behn, there’s Korean-American Prospek (Jonathan ‘Dumbfoundead’ Park), whose chemistry with Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai), the only woman of the group, is as empowering as it is entertaining, with Devine stealing every scene she’s in.
Through the drama, Joseph Kahn blurs the line between mockery and being a part of the problem. Bodied wants you to find the slurs funny, and then have you confront your own prejudices and question whether it is right to even like the film. Who decides when the line’s been crossed is a central question to the film, as characters are constantly contradicting their being offended by offending someone else right away.
The film finds comedy in contradictions. Maya is quick to rant about Adam’s misogynistic wordplay and disregard for cultural appropriation, while refusing to engage in the culture she considers marginalized. At a dinner with college friends, an Asian classmate of Adam claims she can’t be racist because of her heritage, while a gay character calls the “f-word” offensive right before making a joke about his “inner black woman”, later someone shouts “Get woke, cocksucker!” at Adam.
Bodied balances that rowdy entertainment with thought-provoking social commentary. The rap battles are hilarious and heart-pounding, even as they leave you to reflect on the fragile line between free speech and art, and racism and appropriation. It’s a film that feels as timely as it does timeless, both in regard to the jokes and its cultural critique of a culture. And like the characters, Bodied’s viewers will be quick to judge.
Bodied is out now in theaters, and arrives to YouTube Premium on Nov. 28.
Rafael Motamayor is a freelance TV/film critic and reporter living in Norway. You can find more of his work here, or follow him on Twitter @GeekwithanAfro.