Director Joseph Kahn’s Bodied is everything you want from a good midnight movie. It’s loud and energetic, it’s in-your-face hilarious, and practically demands audience engagement – and it’ll most likely make you more than a little uncomfortable during the proceedings.
Centered on the world of competitive battle rap, Bodied follows Adam (Calum Worthy), a white college student attempting to write his English thesis on a particularly touchy aspect of the mostly underground art form. Adam spends the opening moments of the film giving a play-by-play of an epic rap battle in progress, both to his confused girlfriend and the audience. Battle rap, as he details, is a contest in which two or more rappers compete against each other using improvised lyrics devised to insult their opponent (if that sounds anything like a textbook definition that’s because I’m cribbing the definition from the lengthy Wikipedia entry on the subject).
The combatants spit rhymes and disses at one another that are as brilliant and funny as they are crushingly insulting. After the show Adam is unexpectedly challenged to a rap duel of sorts and proves his lyrical prowess to his idol, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). He eventually joins a ragtag crew of rappers and begins working his way up the ranks of the competitive battle rap circuit.
Bodied is basically Breakin’ meets 8 Mile – only instead of Shabba Doo or Eminem, the star of the show is an ignorant dweeb who believes he’s way more woke than he actually is. Adam has the skills, but he is almost completely oblivious to the fact that he’s appropriating a culture that isn’t his, all while throwing around countless racial epithets and stereotypes in the process. All that racism and appropriation is okay though because it’s just a rap battle – or so he argues to anyone who’ll listen.
In one of the film’s most enlightening exchanges, battle rappers Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) and Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park) discuss how a good rap battle is all about playing with the crowd’s expectations. For Devine, who is one of the few female battle rappers, and Prospek, a Korean American rapper, that means playing into what the audience thinks they’re going to get – in this case stereotypes and insults about women and Asians – and then twisting that on its head and using it to their advantage. That’s precisely what Kahn and screenwriter Alex Larsen (aka Toronto’s Kid Twist) do with the film as a whole. Bodied constantly plays with audience expectations and genre conventions. You’ll go in expecting one sort of movie experience – a classic underdog story with a main character you can root for – and come away with another sort entirely. Worthy is a very likeable actor, but his character becomes more and more unlikeable as the film progresses. By the end, you’ll probably have a very hard time rooting for Adam – and if you are still rooting for him somehow you might just be a terrible person.
In the hands of another filmmaker, this sort of cinematic bait-and-switch could be off-putting (in fact, it’s almost certain to rub more than a few audience members the wrong way no matter what), but in Kahn’s deft grasp Bodied succeeds as far more than just a delivery vehicle for uncomfortable questions about race, appropriation, white privilege, and the true meaning of being “woke”. Sure, it’s all a little on the nose at times – that’s sort of the point – and it definitely goes on too long, but like the finely crafted, multifarious verses dished out by the rappers, the film successfully operates on many different levels. A strong, diverse ensemble with a wide variety of rap styles keep each battle fresh and engaging. Nimble editing, impactful on-screen type, and subtle (and not-so-subtle) visual effects, which amp up every confrontation, makes the film is a total joy to behold – even while it’s making you incredibly uncomfortable. It’s nice to be reminded that a movie can still be both a subversive pop culture satire and a god damned entertaining piece of filmmaking.