One of the best films of the year, Joseph Kahn’s Bodied is a sharp-tongued satire that takes a sniper’s aim at cultural appropriation.
My love for battle rap predates my current career as a mean-spirited producer of words, but the two things are inextricably linked. The underground world of poeticised insults is the final frontier of glorious inappropriateness, where language is sharpened and flung with intent to wound in the most obvious and hurtful ways possible. But the best battle rappers – many of whom star in Joseph Kahn’s excellent satire on the subject, Bodied – have an ability to not just project that language outwardly but to fold it in on itself; to examine where it’s coming from and what it means and to whom. Kahn’s whole film speaks with that bold, introspective voice, taking great pleasure in the artistry and power of wordplay.
It’s also legitimately funny and consistently audacious in a way that few films could get away with these days, especially in how viciously it skewers political correctness and arch caricatures of posturing, thought-policing campus leftists – even when they make perfectly reasonable points. This is a film about battle rap, after all, written by Canadian writer and battle rap veteran Alex Larsen, aka “Kid Twist”, so the desire to poke fun and humiliate is never far from the surface. But it’s chiefly a film about words, and how they can be borrowed or stolen and put to noble or nefarious use.
It’s particularly about words in context. Bodied’s quasi-hero is a dorky white kid named Adam (Calum Worthy), a graduate student who enlists local battle rap legend Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) for help with his thesis about the use of the n-word in the culture. Behn’s retort suggests the white boy wants to have his cake and eat it, too; that his academic interest in the subject is his attempt to claim some kind of ownership over a word that has already been reclaimed by the community it was originally levelled against. And that might be true. Throughout Bodied, Adam is unable to square his academic cultural studies with his rather obvious desire to be unironically accepted by the culture he’s studying. And when it turns out he’s remarkably skilled at the art, particularly at the vulgarity and offensiveness he likes to consider himself above, he begins to lose himself in the primitiveness and abandon the veneer of academia that justified his fascination with battling in the first place.
If you didn’t know anything about Bodied, you wouldn’t assume this was where it’s going. Initially Adam feels as distinct from battle rap culture as his snooty girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), a cartoonish figure of unimpeachable white wokeness who can’t understand how anyone could be a good person and yet spend all their time thinking of ways to profoundly insult people. She’s a killjoy who is so convinced of her own moral superiority that she can’t detect her own obvious prejudices, and Bodied reserves a lot of legitimate ire for her and people like her, but she works well as a foil for Adam because most of the things she accuses him of are true.
Some of the sins Adam commits are implicit in battle rap, which lionises the kind of language and behaviour that mainstream culture rightly vilifies. But many of them are more broadly applicable, and concern that tendency to declare oneself exempt from criticism or to say and do unacceptable things by claiming membership of a specific group. In the same way that black battle rappers are able to deploy racial slurs against Asians or Latinos without having to worry about similar slurs being returned, so Adam believes that by classifying his words as “performance” he is conferring upon himself the right to say virtually whatever he likes with no consequence. When he battles a Korean-American rapper named Prospek (Dumbfoundead) and resorts almost exclusively to cultural stereotypes he swore to himself and Maya he’d avoid, in a scene immediately afterwards he’s basically rewarded for doing so. “At least you knew I was Korean,” Prospek tells him. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.”
Prospek and Behn help to comprise Adam’s multicultural crew of de facto friends and mentors, along with a horny Latino who goes by the name Che Corleone (Walter Perez) and a forceful Black female rapper named Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai). Prospek and Devine are similarly frustrated by how their opponents reliably fall back on lazy stereotypes for easy crowd reaction, and the best scene of Bodied is one in which they battle each other essentially by reclaiming those stereotypes and battling themselves – or people’s expectations of them, anyway. It’s a high point that evokes the finale of 8 Mile, the biography of Eminem, who is an executive producer here, which doesn’t go unremarked upon.
The big second-half set-piece, in which our characters all battle one another in various configurations, is electrifying stuff; arriving where the title bout would be in a similar movie with a different subject, Khan shoots the whole thing in that style, borrowing cinematic language from fight flicks so that the streams of invective whip and snap like physical blows. But Bodied is littered with smaller scenes that are less thrilling but funnier and more insightful. At one point Adam and his super-liberal college friends circuitously argue about hip-hop, trying to figure out on whose behalf they should be offended; in another a giant white rapper (Pat Stay) aggressively hurls racial epithets that it’s quite clear he believes, having figured out that battle rap provides a loophole through which he can say egregious things without fear of reprisal.
This kind of stuff places battle rap specifically and hip-hop culture in general under a microscope, but Bodied never provides a real diagnosis of its own. It just lets these people – almost all caricatures, but all prisms for various backgrounds and experiences – collide. For a battle rap fan it’s an endless delight; almost every notable figure in the culture shows up for a cameo, many of which are smartly calibrated to be small commentaries on or inversions of real moments and conversations in the culture. The aforementioned Pat Stay has been accused of doing just what his minor character in Bodied is doing; the white rapper Adam initially battles at the beginning of the film is Charron, a white Canadian who is essentially a real-life mirror to Adam’s character; the film’s nominal villain, Megaton, is played by West Coast rapper Dizaster, who is known for his aggression and for having on at least one occasion punched an opponent – something he does in Bodied. A who’s who of minor and major figures are present, from league owners like Organik and Smack White to battle rap royalty like Hollow Da Don and Loaded Lux and West Coast legends like The Saurus and Illmaculate. Bodied has the knowingness and authenticity of a fan film, but a thought-provoking, unpretentious ability to rigorously examine itself and what it stands for. It’s one of the best films of the year.