By: Steve Pulaski
Joseph Kahn's Bodied is a visceral knockout of a movie. It combines a delusional anti-hero with a countercultural underbelly that's explored in the fullest, rawest sense. An in-depth look at the battle-rap scene that's both praiseworthy yet introspective as it turns a critical eye to the impact of snappy wordplay and cutthroat insults, the film is both captivating for any hip-hop fan on the basis of its premise alone. Where it soars, however, is in its ability to be a complex, racially incendiary examination of privileged liberalism while holding nothing back in neither its exposition nor its copious amounts of memorable bars — from the mouth of some of the game's most loquacious spitters. One background character late in the film summarizes it best: "get woke, c***sucker."
The film's hero is Adam Merkin, played by Calum Worthy in a performance that gains momentum and gets stronger as the film persists, a pasty-white redhead who has been attending underground rap battles for his academic thesis. Our first scene catches him and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) at a particularly heated one, as the two are in the presence of Behn Grym (Jackie Long), one of Adam's idols, who agrees to sit down and discuss the "poetic use" of the n-word in battle rap — one of the focal point's of our lead's paper. Despite giving him the time of day, Grym is still very suspect of Adam. "There are plenty of n-words here you could ask about the n-word," Grym tells him, yet he sees the young man's genuine curiosity and unabashed love for hip-hop as well. Maya, the poster-child of the pampered, annoyingly PC liberal who tells everyone else they're the problem, sees nothing but what she perceives as rampant misogyny and disturbingly caustic insults on display for yuks.
Just as Adam and Maya are leaving the club, a white wannabe-rapper calls attention to himself in the parking lot by wanting to throw-down some rhymes with Grym. Grym diverts to Adam, who nervously agrees to go toe-to-toe with the doofus and winds up spitting lines good enough to go viral and earn the respect of Grym himself. This not only inspires Adam to dig deeper, but also hone his own rapping skills in subsequent battles. A nerdy, anxious soul, one without much identity outside of one conjured from the vast amounts of literature he's basically inhaled over the course of his college career, Adam has long lived in the shadow of his father (Anthony Michael Hall), a wildly successful novelist and professors at the same school he attends.
Adam is later contacted by "Donnie Narco," (former MTV VJ Simon Rex) a battle-rap coordinator who matches him up with the Korean "Prospek" (played by real-life rapper Dumbfoundead). Adam wins the face-off, largely through racially insensitive bars, but Prospek sees the opposite: he at least admires Adam's astuteness in recognizing he's Korean and the fact he didn't use the slur "chink" once. But even then, Prospek knows that Adam's lines came from a place that shows he does believe in some of those stereotypes, therein kickstarting one of the film's many themes: how rap music can go beyond cleverness and embark down a frightening, racist path.
As far as Adam is concerned, this is only the beginning and there are plenty of other rappers he can serve. He links up with Grym and several other rappers while polishing his thesis in the meantime. His interest becomes an obsession, alienating and infuriating Maya, whom eventually dumps him and exacts revenge. It all leads up to an epic throwdown, which dominates the final 35 minutes of the film, when Adam goes up against Grym and even Megaton (Dizaster, one of the titans in underground rap), an aggressive and relentlessly demoralizing artist whose bars are big enough to make grown men cry, lash out, or do some combination of both.
Bodied is as audacious as any film released this decade. It's compelling from its first moments, and like an intense rap — be it an underground battle or a cold-hearted drill anthem like Montana of 300's "Chiraq" remix — it gradually becomes suffocating in its intensity until you're reacting like a group of bystanders watching one of these heated, rhythmic exchanges play out in a dimly lit bunker or parking garage. Written by Alex "Kid Twist" Larsen, it's a film about language as a tool of power. Like a great George Carlin standup special, it concerns the power of words and their ability to be manipulated, appropriated, and integrated to the point where it becomes increasingly nebulous to discern them as part of an inventive structure, strung together to inspire head-nods and chants, or a call to throw hands and incite violence. Rather than embellishing the coolness of Adam's raps, Larsen does the trickier dance in looking critically at whether or not his racially tinged or inflammatory assertions about minorities and their cultures hold any weight in his mind as being racist beliefs. What is his, or anyone's, ultimate goal with a battle rap? To mine for the most incredible insults or use the best as personal attacks on one's character? It can't all just be about generating applause and street cred.
Being written by a rapper and directed by Joseph Kahn, whose background in addition to indie films has long-been music videos,Bodied is indisputably authentic in its examination of rap. It comes with a real admiration for the culture, as evidenced in many scenes, including an early one where Adam and Maya are driving home from attending their first throwdown together. Adam makes a fantastic point to Maya when he remarks about how aspiring writers/poets submit their work to stuffy journals hoping a handful of subscribers read their words in contrast to the riotous setting of a rap-battle, where the instantaneous crowd-reactions and verbal blows inspire a dopamine jolt to the brain. Adam also makes the case I and countless others have been making for years in my reviews and personal blogs: there's a fascinating structure to hip-hop both from a linguistic and concept perspective, the latter in the case of battle-rap. He compares it to a spoken-word essay, straight from the heart, given substance and significance because it's so impulsive yet so powerfully in-the-moment. There is so much to unpack in its scenes, and at 120 minutes, there's a lot of dissecting to be done.
Probably its ballsiest move is its desire to peel off more layers of the proverbial onion and examine the preppy, liberal arts students with whom Adam associates. Consider another scene where Adam and Maya have dinner with their diverse friend-group, who all look like they haven't worked a day in their lives. They're so quick to call out so-called microaggressions and the cultural insensitivity of others while they themselves engage in brazen ethnocentrism and privileged judgment on the counterculture of battle-rap. Rory Uphold, in particular, does a terrific job at embodying many of those qualities in Maya, a well-meaning but infuriatingly tone-deaf individual I hesitate to call a caricature because I do believe people like her do exist. Uphold does a splendid job of showing that being alert doesn't always mean you're part of the solution.
As I mentioned, Worthy, who has come a long way from Disney Channel's Austin & Ally to say the least, is an electric presence; one whose confidence grows, much like the character, as the film goes on, to the point where even his rapping skills seem to develop too. Like an average student assisted by vets and scholars, he's greatly aided by the talent around him, especially the real-life rappers who do double-duty in taking him under their wing and flapping it square in his face when the moment calls for it.
Bodied was produced by Eminem, and occasionally seems like a postmodern parody of his own biopic, 8 Mile, as it tells the story of a white rapper infiltrating a predominately black/minority-driven space. The final rap-battle is exhilarating, with jabs so personal and gut-wrenching they make you lean forward and remind yourself you're just watching a movie. If you're anything like me, it will have you screaming and reacting with restless angst along with the crowd — as it should, I'd argue. Kahn and Larsen have made what appears to be the unsung masterpiece of the year, and even if it lives on as a series of YouTube clips shown to friends at parties and gatherings, I'd say that's a worthy legacy. But it would be better if those who watch it learn, or at least contemplate, a thing or two.