Dizzying displays of verbal acrobatics are the core delight of Joseph Kahn’s battle rap movie Bodied, which is like a boxing movie with fists swapped out for rhymes. Adam (Calum Worthy), a white, progressive Berkeley student, gets sucked into the world of competitive rapping while researching his thesis on the use of offensive language within the sport. As he becomes a better, more vicious rapper, he alienates his friends at school, who look upon the scene and its language with disdain.
As that synopsis might imply, Bodied is largely concerned with offensive language and its use within disparate contexts. Within the battle rap community, the film offers a nuanced, realistic take on this that can’t easily be boiled down to a platitude. It is okay, for example, for Adam to say deeply racist things about an opponent within the parameters of a battle, but that context neither absolves him of the impulses behind his words nor does it wholly mitigate their impact.
After a battle with Korean rapper Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park), Adam remarks that he’s glad the other rapper knows he’s not really a racist despite the string of bad Asian jokes he just spit. Prospek toasts him in Korean: “You’re a racist piece of shit.” These rappers, even when being verbally dismantled, are fully realized characters with thoughts, feelings and considered takes on the scene around them. This assemblage, combined with Kahn’s typically energetic direction in and out of battles and constant deconstruction of the macho, guns-out posturing of these aggressive poetry contests, would be more than enough to make Bodied a pointed, exciting movie. But unfortunately, that’s only half the story.
All of the nuance afforded to the rap scene is completely absent from the film’s skewering of the Berkeley student body, an indignant, hysterical mob of one-dimensional progressive caricatures that spend nearly all of their time calling one another out for problematic speech. If these scenes of campus freakouts had more depth or originality than any given Reddit rant, they might make a fine complement to the goings on at the Battle League. Instead, they are annoying, insipid, and devoid of the clever humor that makes so much of the film a joy. It’s a maddeningly simplistic and all too significant part of a film that strives for and achieves complexity elsewhere. By the time protests break out on campus, it is difficult to read these scenes as more than incurious taunts diametrically opposed to the honest inquiry it makes into battle rap. Worse, for much of the film’s runtime, Adam’s relationship to these people is the closest Bodied comes to emotional stakes. When he loses their friendship, so what?
And that’s all Adam loses, really. Rap battles aren’t judged per se, but Adam never gets bodied. Every time he raps, he comes out on top in the eyes of the crowd. For all the panache Kahn brings to directing these legitimately mesmerizing battles, tightly written and deftly performed, none of it adds up to much more than a string of victories for a novice who’s instantly better than several scene legends.
Bodied had its Quebec premiere at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Directed by Joseph Kahn; written by Alex Larsen; starring Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlamagne tha God, and Dizaster; 121 minutes.