Bodied (2017)

Bodied first published by SciFiNow

“This is the one you’ve been waiting for…”, goes the first line heard in Bodied, reflecting the precise thoughts of those of us who have been waiting six long years since Joseph Kahn’s postmodern meta slasher Detention (2011) knocked us sideways  – or 13 years for those lost folk who missed Detention but really loved the self-parodying fast-and-furious dumb-assed motorheading of Kahn’s feature debut Torque (2004). “This ain’t gonna be no increase-the-peace rap,” the speaker – MC at Kalifornia Battle League – continues, introducing the next battle rap, but also the film. “They’re gonna talk about shootin’ a motherfucker, killin’ a motherfucker, and fucking a motherfucker’s bitch… So if you ain’t with that, turn this shit off, and suck that dick.”

Make no mistake, and heed that warning: there’s a lot of performative offence in Bodied, as we watch battle after battle, with endless barrages of barbs and braggadocio – but by having as its main character Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), a white Berkeley postgrad writing his English master’s thesis on rap’s use of the N-word, the film also provides a constant meta-commentary between Adam, his feminist vegan girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) and their coterie of progressive university friends, on the boundaries of offensiveness.

As Adam, under the tutelage of seasoned battle rapper Behn Grym (Jackie Long), discovers his own flair for rhythmic invective, the student keeps having to negotiate his different positions in the worlds of academia and rapping, and struggles with the ‘code-switching’ required to cross from one competitive arena to the other without irrecoverably offending everybody in his life. Part of the joke is that the dingy rap venues and the ivory towers of education are not so very different. “Come on up to Berkley some time,” Adam tells self-styled gangster rapper Megaton (Dizaster), “We settle beef with word debates there too.” 

“Do you really want to be another white guy shamelessly appropriating African-American culture?”, Maya asks Adam near the beginning of Bodied, articulating exactly what the viewer is thinking. It is hard here not to be thinking of Eminem and 8 Mile (2002) – but again, the film is way ahead of us. After all, it was produced by Eminem, and both the rapper himself, and “his own fictional movie”, come in for considerable critical discussion (and drubbing) from the characters.

Meanwhile, through the Korean-American rapper Prospek (Dumbfoundead), Kahn – himself a Korean-American – gets to disparage his own cultural stereotypes as mercilessly as every other ethnicity’s, while flipping racial slurs to his own advantage. Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) similarly gets to reappropriate all the sexist aspersions typically cast at her gender. It is all about context, with the coliseum of the battle raps – and ultimately of the film itself – constituting the perfect space in which the unspeakable can safely be spoken. As Prospek puts it after being subjected to a stream of racist abuse, the fact that Adam knew he was Korean rather than calling him ‘Chink’ is “culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.”

Bodied is hilarious – often jaw-droppingly so – and also super-smart, as it keeps framing deeply objectionable disses in ways that problematise their own problematic nature, while simultaneously supporting and skewering the extremes of liberal PC. Alex Larsen’s screenplay self-consciously interrogates the limits of what can be said within frames of performance, quotation, irony, artifice and real life. For in rap battles where misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ablism, slut-shaming and fat jokes are all de rigueur, Adam is quick to realise that the most offensive weapon – apart from vicious wordplay – is brutal truth. In an environment where, as a privileged white boy, he will always seem appropriative rather than authentic, Adam’s method of attack is to expose the inauthentic posturing of his opponents who are also adopting false names, assuming rôles and playing a game. The paradox here is that, in crossing lines and taking things too far, Adam does precisely what is supposed to be done in battle rap – but he is also revealing an unpleasant core beneath his preppy veneer. Adam certainly knows how to talk the talk of political correctness, but at heart he just might be, as Behn Grym suggests, “a racist piece of shit” in need of an appropriate forum to express what he is truly thinking, but is normally afraid to say.

Kahn’s deployment of postmodern titles, montage and parody keeps everything visually fresh (in a film where the word reigns supreme), while the raps themselves are brilliantly written and delivered, with the final battle between Adam and Behn Grym a tense exchange of increasingly personal attacks where their very friendship is at stake. Bodied is mostly a comedy, but it has serious things to say about the power of language in the arena of offence. This is a crucial issue in an age where white supremacy is reemergent, where ‘snowflake’-bashing and sensitivity-trampling have become mainstream political pursuits, and where the borders of otherness are rapidly shifting. 

Strap: Joseph Kahn’s battle rap comedy Bodied has serious things to say about the power of language in the arena of offence.

© Anton Bitel