It was 16 years ago when mainstream film audiences were introduced to the concept of battle rap thanks to Eminem and his semi-autobiographical 8 Mile. A decade and a half later, Joseph Kahn, who has directed a number of the rapper’s music videos, has directed Bodied, a new film that takes the same subject in a very different direction.
Adam (Calum Worthy) is a graduate student studying English at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) are white, liberal, and about as “woke” as they come. The only thing that keeps Adam from looking like a poster child for academia is his interest in battle rap. He’s using it as the subject for his thesis, specifically the use of the N-word in battle rap, leading him to reach out to one of his favorite local battle rappers, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), as an authority on the subject. When a chance encounter outside one event causes Adam to try his own hand at battle rap, it turns out he’s pretty good at it. Behn Grymm becomes a friend and mentor and Adam begins to dive deeper into the world of competitive battle rap.
While this makes him several new friends, it begins to alienate him from his old ones. Battle rap, you see, is full of some pretty awful language. Racism, sexism and misogyny aren’t simply permitted, they’re encouraged, and while Adam initially tries to battle without them, he eventually gives in, and in doing so begins to make a name for himself.
First of all, if you have a problem with the aforementioned bad language, you’ll probably want to skip out on Bodied. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat its language one bit. The racial slurs fly fast and furious, though, since the cast of Bodied is pretty multicultural, those racial slurs are, at the very least, equal opportunity.
If you don’t mind vulgarity, then you’ll probably enjoy Bodied as it’s a wickedly funny film. The rap sequences are smartly written and while it may take a viewing or two to actually catch every insult and quip, the ones you do hear will likely having you laughing out loud, all the while feeling bad for laughing because the joke was so utterly offensive.
You really don’t need to be a fan of rap music to be a fan of Bodied. The battle raps here aren’t musically accompanied in an attempt to turn them into songs. The rap comes across more like spoken word poetry, so any fan of clever wordplay will find something to enjoy.
Many of the roles in Bodied are played by professional battle rappers, not necessarily professional actors. However, one thing you learn watching the movie is that battle rap is a bit like professional wrestling. It’s about creating a persona as much as it is delivering the rhymes. This means performance comes naturally, and nobody feels like they don’t belong in front of the camera.
While Bodied is a truly funny movie, there’s more going on under the hood. This is a modern story, and as such, a white guy getting involved in the mostly African-American battle rap scene creates all sorts of issues. Is this cultural appropriation? Adam isn’t just white, he’s affluent. His father (Anthony Michael Hall) is a professor at the very school he attends. Even if white people belong in the battle rap community, does this white guy belong there? He’s as far from the cultures that created rap as it is possible to get. Especially considering the fact that it means hearing him spout an excessive amount of racist language. And is that language really necessary to the culture of rap? Is it possible to have the art form without saying things many parts of modern culture are trying to eradicate?
The questions are certainly interesting ones. Where Bodied falters is that, while it’s more than willing to ask the questions, it’s not brave enough to try actually answering them. Adam’s girlfriend Maya is POV character for those who might take issue with some of the less than politically correct aspects of the story. She’s a caricature of liberalism and is meant to be the butt of jokes, which is fine, except that at one point she basically breaks the fourth wall in order to point out that even if she is a walking film trope of the disapproving girlfriend, it doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Adam himself also vacillates between extremes. In one moment he seems to believe he doesn’t belong in this culture and in the next he’s embracing it even more. The fact that Bodied even exists as a movie would seem to indicate that it has an opinion on these questions, but it refuses to take a stand in the text.
Still, while Bodied might not be willing to say anything of substance about difficult topics, it does potentially start the dialogue, which is something. And it’s still hilarious, whether you take anything from it or not.