While people may best know Joseph Kahn from his work on music videos — including many of Taylor Swift’s most popular videos — the director has made a name for himself in the film world for directing abrasive and audacious films like Torque and Detention. If you didn’t like any of those films, it’s fairly unlikely you’ll enjoy his newest film, Bodied. Showing no signs of subtlety or restraint, Kahn has somehow crafted his most interesting film while still falling into many of the pitfalls that the music video director has always indulged in with his film career.
Bodied takes the audience into the world of battle rap, as Caucasian university student Adam (Calum Worthy) goes from positing about the use of the ‘N-word’ in his thesis paper to becoming the next great battle rapper. Going under the wing of Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), Adam struggles with keeping his personal and private lives separate. One of Bodied’s most interesting elements is its forcing of battle rap into Adam’s social life as he tries his best to explain the poetic value of the craft to his white, vegan, politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). While conversations between Adam and Maya often devolve into redundant arguments about what’s okay to say and what’s not, it’s the slow unraveling of a deep-seated racism within Adam that makes the film both timely and important.
The actual battle rapping within Bodied is presented much like an action sequence. Music rises as the tension escalates and the wordplay at use becomes increasingly more involved. Kahn does an incredible job using special effects and claustrophobic shots to drive home the savagery that can come out of an insult-throwing competition. The lyrics can be both funny and subversive, but at all times they go straight for the jugular. Camaraderie between fellow rappers is both strengthened and broken by what is said in their verses, but the best part is seeing where that line is drawn and how Adam perceives the importance of that line. Today there are often articles written about whether it’s okay for someone to talk about rape on stage, or speak racial and homophobic slurs if it’s under the guise of artistic intent — Bodied explores that idea fully, and without pulling any punches.
This comes at a cost, though. Pretty much every conversation between Adam and Maya or her friends feels redundantly pretentious. Everyone is a stereotype, and Adam feels like a juvenile version of an Aaron Sorkin character — always talking as if he’s the smartest guy in the room. While it gets the point of the film across, it does it in the simplest way possible. Writer Alex Larsen’s screenplay is the perfect match to Kahn’s unrestrained style of directing, but at two hours, it’s grating to hear some characters talk after a while.
The fact that Kahn and Larsen do not pull any punches is a blessing and a curse. On one hand they get to make a film that approaches notions of cultural appropriation and racism within a subject (rap) that features those elements so prominently. At the same time, the movie becomes oppressive and difficult to enjoy because it focuses on a main character who is insufferably racist and thinks that he’s better than everyone, puts him in situations where the outcome can only increase his insufferable nature, and then proceeds with his journey. As a character study, it’s not even close to great, because its one opinion on Adam isn’t even followed through by the end. As an exploration of racism in White America though, it’s a goddamn treasure.
Bodied will be a huge hit with rap fans, and I think its troublesome how much the actual message of the film might not get across because of how painful the dialogue can be. I would want every character to stop talking when the rapping had ended, with the exception of the other rappers in Adam’s crew, who speak like regular human beings and offer interesting insight into their own plights as rappers. It’s such an important conversation to have, but Bodied is frustratingly dedicated to presenting its message in a style that is jarring to the ideas it holds. We can try and talk about cultural appropriation, but it’s hard to do so when the entire film is centered around a character appropriating black culture and turning into a racist monster, without much condemnation in the end. Bodied is an important film, but a deeply flawed one.