In this corner: Bodied. The flashy, frenetic movie about a freckly ginger who becomes a battle-rap star. The scorching satire that pummels audiences with questions and provides little in the way of answers. The two-hour cringe-fest that makes you laugh hysterically and then immediately makes you feel bad about it. And in this corner: all of us. The mainstream public. The police of political correctness. The judges and juries who decide what's offensive (usually, almost everything) and what's not. Are we really ready for a movie like Bodied? Doesn't matter — it's coming, and it wants to make you squirm.
The third feature from prolific music video director Joseph Kahn, Bodied arrives 16 years after 8 Mile gave us another big-screen story about what it means for a white guy to be the hero of a battle-rap movie. But that's pretty much where the comparisons end (though Eminem does serve as a producer on Kahn's film). Bodied star Jackie Long summed it up to MTV News by musing, "With 8 Mile, you wanted to know, 'Could a white person rap?' In our movie, you want to know, 'Should white people rap?'"
A lot rides on the white person in question. In 8 Mile, Eminem's Jimmy was a native Detroit punk; he wasn't so much a tourist in the grimy battle rap world. The opposite is true of Bodied's protagonist, Adam, a pasty grad student studying English and poetry at Berkeley. Adam is fed up with the competitive wokeness of his academic bubble and finds release in the deliberately insolent world of battle rap, where filters don't exist and anything goes. When he discovers how improbably skilled of a wordslinger he turns out to be, his callowness and cockiness threaten everything: his relationship with his feminist girlfriend, his friendships, his academic future. But he doesn't really seem to care, so long as he keeps winning battles.
And, more improbably — or not, considering he's basically been weaponized as an academic wordsmith — he does win plenty of battles, once he realizes that the more shocking and tasteless his words are, the more he satisfies the crowd and comes out on top.
"He's the anti-hero, in the truest way possible," explained Calum Worthy, the 27-year-old former Disney Channel star who plays Adam. "He's a good battle rapper, but at the end of the day, is he a good person?" Kahn poses the question a different way: "Any battle rapper has the capability to [go too far]. But would they?"
That debate intensifies as we watch Adam get more and more comfortable spewing misogynistic, racist, and homophobic bile at his opponents — and it comes to a head in the film's climactic battle, when Adam and Long's Behn face one another in a master-protégé duel that turns ugly as they use each other's secrets as ammunition. But while Bodied never lets Adam off easy for being a white dude propounding his right to make race jakes, it also doesn't make him a scapegoat by suggesting he shouldn't try. After one battle when he conjures the nastiest jabs he can muster about his Asian-American opponent — think everything from slanted eyes to eating dogs — his apology is waved away: "At least you knew I was Korean. That's culturally sensitive by battle-rap standards."
Kahn maintains that if Bodied does its job, "you should be shaken by the end of it," and that's partially because the movie doesn't spoon-feed politics by telling the audience what they should think or how they should feel. Instead, it offers the mechanism to debate and to ask, "Was that joke hilarious or offensive?" and "What does my answer to that say about me?" As Worthy contends, "It promotes conversation, rather than staying in an echo chamber."
Bodied was partially inspired by the dust-up over cultural appropriation in Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams" video, which Kahn directed. His initial idea was to make a film that revolved around social-media landmines, but after realizing such a screen-centric story "would be the most boring thing ever," he decided to frame it through the more dynamic lens of battle rap.
"Battle rap is just a visual metaphor for Twitter," Kahn explained. "The funny thing is, people think I've made a race movie. I really haven't. I've made a communications movie. Battle rap, in a nutshell, is the ultimate confrontation on a verbal level. It's two people that have agreed to face each other and say the meanest things possible without killing each other."
He added, "It's a blood sport; the objective is to win and kill in a clever way. And on a certain level, that reflects society itself. Our limitations of what is acceptable to say in public to each other fluctuates depending on the political temperature. Right now, we're at a heightened level where we can't say anything. We are quick to call each other racist and sexist on anything and, let's face it, if anybody went and said any two lines of battle raps at work from this movie, they would be fired instantly."
Adam, too, learns by the end of Bodied that saying what you want has consequences (not to mention: who says them, and to whom, is also of consequence). As Worthy says, it's a timely-as-hell commentary about "freedom of speech versus 'where is the limit?'" The reason the film resonates so strongly is not just because it channels the hostility that suffocates the way we interact with one another online, but because it's hard to watch without seeing yourself in a flawed character like Adam and forcing you to examine your own stereotypes. Thankfully, there's also plenty for you to laugh at.
"When you watch Bodied and you're all laughing together, but you're all laughing at the most racist, homophobic, anti-Asian jokes up there on screen, and you're laughing next to a gay person, and you're laughing next to a girl if you're a guy, there's a collective realization that you're all in this together, and the uptightness of what you feel in normal society goes away," Kahn explained. "It's using really, really offensive jokes to connect with each other."
And that, ultimately, is what may make Bodied worth the uncomfortable watch. After all, why shouldn't we be able to have a dialogue about ethics, labels, and cultural appropriation that's fun?
Bodied is in select theaters now and releases on YouTube Premium on November 28.