If Joseph Kahn’s Bodied were a stand-up comedian, it would probably describe itself as “politically incorrect” or “an equal-opportunity offender,” and you might be inclined to go bottoms-up on the two-drink minimum and beeline for the exit. Kahn and screenwriter Alex Larsen, better known in the hip-hop community as Kid Twist, have designed the film as a comprehensive provocation, blowing up racial and gender stereotypes through a fusillade of tasteless one-liners. It’s juvenile. It’s irritating. Yet it’s also fiendishly clever in the way it anticipates and dismantles every argument that could be made against it, and how it sneakily affirms the power of the words it slings around so freely.
For Kahn and Kid Twist’s paean to uninhibited speech, the choice of arena is key. Bodied takes place in the underground world of battle rap, where two wordsmiths stand toe-to-toe and insult each other as viciously and poetically as they can, and the winner collects the most “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the crowd. (If someone has received a verbal beatdown, they’ve been “bodied.”) The language tends to trade heavily in racial stereotypes or any other surface traits that can be easily exploited, and it’s expected that lines will be crossed. After the film’s hero summons the most offensive references he can muster about an Asian-American opponent, his apology afterwards is waved away: “At least you knew I was Korean. That’s culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.”
Though Khan has directed a couple of other features — the physics-defying motorcycle actioner Torque and the knowing, Scream-like slasher comedy Detention — his reputation is staked on 25 years’ worth of music videos for some of the biggest pop stars around, including Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. (The dust-up over cultural appropriation in his video for Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is said to be an inspiration for this.) Another frequent client, Eminem, lends a producer credit to Bodied and it feels like a natural companion to his semi-autobiographical drama 8 Mile, another story about a white rapper trying to find credibility in an African-American art form.
The white rapper in Bodied has a much steeper climb. Played by Calum Worthy, a Canadian actor who came through the Disney Channel and ABC Family circuit, Adam Merkin is a progressive grad school student who’s working on a thesis titled, “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-word in Battle Rap.” With his feminist girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) in tow, Adam attends a Killerfornia Battle League event in order to meet Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), one of the most respected rappers in the game. In the parking lot after the show, when a white guy tries to challenge Behn to an improvisational duel, Behn offers Adam in his place to see if his middling poetry slam skills might be triggered into action. It turns out that Adam is a natural and a clip of his parking-lot triumph circulates far enough to get him a proper gig.
With Behn acting as his mentor, Adam starts gaining in confidence and skill, even as he has to leave his cultural sensitivities at the door. Bodied plays the two sides of Adam like a comic twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the buttoned-down intellectual transforming into a snarling beast of exquisitely metered put-downs. Kahn and Kid Twist have troll-ish opinions to share about speech on college campuses — and their treatment of Maya as a granola-munching scold is, to use a buzzword they hate, ‘problematic” — but Bodied thrives whenever it’s on the circuit and half-contentious/half-mischievous culture of battle rap takes hold.
Though the film pokes fun at the clichés and tackiness that can seep into the battles — a sequence where a Korean and a black woman flip the script by mimicking past opponents is particularly brilliant — it also idealizes this space where everyone can speak their minds. At the same time, Bodied recognizes that words can be weaponized and people can get hurt, and with the great freedom of saying anything comes the great responsibility of behaving honorably. For all its strenuous effort to shock and editorialize, the film ultimately cares about decency and the importance of checking your language, even as you opt to liberate it.