The second interaction between UC-ish Berkeley literature grad student Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) and his battle rap mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), concerns Behn, who is African American, granting Adam—thoroughly caucasian—permission to use the “n-word.” Adam does, and immediately regrets it, even though his whole grad thesis centers around the word’s use in African-American “poetry,” academia insulating the awkward white kid against taking responsibility for his inherent, inherited racism. That “permission,” Behn implies to Adam, accompanies the kid’s need to be told by a marginalized community that all of his appropriation, all of his study and love and theorizing about art that technically isn’t his, is OK. Which in itself is racist, because, as Behn’s wife (Candice Renee) later yells at Adam, expecting the ins and outs of black culture, of black life, to be explained to ignorant white people—expecting all black people to act as personal gatekeepers for all white people—only condones that ignorance, removing accountability from the oppressor while fortifying racist inequality. No matter what Adam does, he’s being racist, and by trying not to be racist, he only digs himself in even deeper. Which is pretty much Bodied’s point: Adam is an asshole.
The first interaction between Behn and Adam occurs after a series of battle rap match-ups staged in some suitably dingy, damp warehouse-turned-bar space. Director Joseph Kahn introduces this world of warring words as if it’s a UFC fight, or a viral video, chyrons and glossy graphics explaining who’s who while Adam, at the sidelines of the cypher, explains to his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) the many allusions, puns and assorted subtleties of the battlers’ bars (even explaining what a “bar” is, both for Maya’s benefit and the audience’s). Kahn knows that the closest most viewers have come to this world is through the watered-down commercial success of 8 Mile (Eminem, in fact, is a producer on Bodied), a self-aware notion later commented upon during a frank discussion of Eminem’s prowess, as is Kahn’s own participation in the careers of famous hip-hop artists, directing pretty much every popular music video of the past two decades. Bodied exists in this constant meta-state of retroaction, forever folding back in on and interrogating itself—not regressively, but omnidirectionally. Same goes for hip hop taking pieces from established art, which itself was taken from something to come before, always recycling and remixing and rearticulating, and ultimately redefining. Bodied is a pure expression of the text it’s also litigating, visceral and self-righteous and really fucking funny.
Though Bodied ostensibly charts the rise of Adam to battle rap godhood, it is as much about Adam accepting his whiteness as it is about the cultural phenomenon of battle rap and to whom that phenomenon belongs. It probably isn’t inappropriate, given how screenwriter Alex Larsen emphasizes the trenchant meanings of language, to interpret the film’s title as an expression of physical dominance: Battle rap is equally intellectual and athletic, an expression of one’s identity as an expression of one’s culture as an expression of how one looks. Which might be why Kahn treats Bodied as a subversive sports movie, positioning his underdog as the predicted winner of the big game—a battle rap between Adam’s crew and the ersatz antagonist, Megaton (Dizaster), over a misunderstanding concerning Megaton’s porn star girlfriend—which represents more than just a simple competition, but a metaphorical struggle between empirical societal forces. It even ends on a slow-motion, goose-bumping inspirational (though obviously ironic) moment of triumph. Kahn might as well cue Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” so seamlessly does he mimic (and mock) the tropes of Oscar bait like 8 Mile (which, as you might remember, creates an imaginary “line” between black and white in Detroit neighborhoods as a clean way to demonstrate what Rabbit accomplishes). Adam winning doesn’t change Adam’s gingery whiteness, or change his background as the privileged son of a famous writer (Anthony Michael Hall, OG white guy), or give him back what he was willing to sacrifice (girlfriend, academic career, home and bed) to win. As Behn scolds Adam in the end, “Words have consequences,” and no matter how safe Adam thought he was within this cultural space he thought he had access to, no matter how much he’s celebrated for his bars, he’s still and probably will always be, as so many people call him, “a racist piece of shit.”
Never pedantic, Kahn inhabits this heightened world with an endlessly creative knack for making every conversation, even the most obligatory, compelling, his and cinematographer Matt Wise’s camera rarely ever pausing to take itself too seriously, developing a visual language as ready to jump deep into Adam’s pores, to sympathize with his uncomfortable confusion, as it is to back off and bask in his doofus-y awkwardness. Heated conversations become battles in themselves (sometimes referenced overtly); every word passed about race or gender or sexuality becomes fodder for competition, actual battle raps bleeding into civilized discourse until, in the end, the context of “battle rap” no longer justifies the hate Adam feels comfortable spewing in the ring. Kahn is a genius in his restlessness; there is a lot going on in this film, and rarely does it ever stop long enough to let it sink in—because that’s not how this shit works.
Bodied is blatantly offensive—racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ugly, repugnant, vulgar, etc., unapologetically so—but takes full responsibility for everything that it is, everything that battle rap is, with the delicacy of a wet fart, simultaneously exhilarating and infuriating for it. Bodied fans that stench in the faces of the audience, forcing us to sit in the vile, hilarious odor of what’s been dredged up from the bowels of our everyday interactions. It’s a vital film—an essential American movie—not because it finds resolution in so many facets of our atomized culture finally coming together, but because it finds no resolution at all. Adam doesn’t win because he’s finally accepted, he wins because he’s finally accepted that he’s a racist piece of shit. Bodied brashly and brilliantly asks us to do the same.
Director: Joseph Kahn
Writer: Alex Larsen
Starring: Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Dumbfoundead, Rory Uphold, Shoniqua Shandai, Walter Perez, Anthony Michael Hall, Dizaster, Candice Renee
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and extremely white. You can follow him on Twitter.