My review of Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, which screened at the Fantasia Festival.
Writer-director Joseph Kahn’s Detention – a post-modern horror/science fiction/high school movie – was so perfectly in tune with genre festival audiences that his follow-up feature has been snapped up by programmers at Fantasia (and, later this summer, FrightFest) though its fantastical element (a few zappy CGI flourishes) is minimal. Basically, Bodied is a rerun of the plot of Magic Mike (or All About Eve) with a battle rap milieu and a lot of interesting things to say about the culture of being offensive and being offended in the 21st century. Produced by Eminem, who gets amusingly dissed when he is inevitably discussed, it’s structured around face-offs – with onscreen listings of bouts and opponents – between battle rappers, whose schtick is simply delivering insulting monologues to each other’s faces with winners and losers determined by some arcane instinctive applauseometer. Besides other films about faux-naïve newbies exceeding their senseis as they are drawn into a wild lifestyle (a quite crowded genre, which ranges from The Mechanic and Showgirls to Hells Angels on Wheels to The Idiots), it’d make an intriguing double bill with Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule, which tells much the same story but in the context of the 18th century French royal court.
Extremely white and slight student Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy, doing wonders with a weasel character) drags his savvy, fed-up girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) to a battle rap tourney held in the sort of underground parking structure usually seen in films as the backdrop for drug deals and shoot-outs. Adam is working on a thesis about the use of the n-word in hip-hop culture and is thrilled by the transgressiveness of battle rappers like hoodie-sporting Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) – yes, he’s named after Thing from the Fantastic Four – while Maya is appalled by the misogyny, homophobia, racism and all-round non-PC venomousness of the acts. When Behn is challenged in the parking lot by a great white no-hope, he contemptuously asks Adam to rap in his place and Adam finds he has a knack for thinking of bars, beats, rhymes and put-downs … which lands him more and more prominent bouts, earning him the respect of other battle rap misfits – anyone who isn’t an African-American man gets a harder time in the ring, including Korean Prospek (Jonathan Park aka Dumbfounded), Ecuadorian Che Corleone (Walter Perez) and black woman Devine Wright (Shoniqua Shandai) – and something like friendship with Behn, who is covertly a family man video games designer with a good taste home and a tough-talking wife (Candice Renee) rather than the street thug his image suggests. As Adam he gains battle rap acceptance, he loses his comfortable if marginalised academic safe space. Maya ditches him and leaks a clip of him pouring racist abuse on Prospek in the ring, which leads to protests against him on campus, suspension of his scholarship, and sleeping on a campus bench since even his smug poet academic Dad (Anthony Michael Hall) won’t give him house-room.
The twist, of course, is that Adam’s white ruthlessness enables his rise on the scene, which is predicated on him not understanding the amazingly complex and nuanced unwritten rules of what’s acceptable and not in dissing. When the gang poke fun at Prospek with jibes based on Asian-American stereotypes and white misunderstandings of same, they’re also deconstructing and disavowing prejudices … but when Adam pitches in with a gag about Japanese war crimes he crosses a line by breaking a taboo without satirical purpose. Kahn – who co-wrote with rapper Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist) – salts the film with foreshadowings of a hollow triumph, as Behn unwisely lets Adam into his life and gives him ammunition to ‘go personal’ in their inevitable final face-off, which turns out to be not quite so inevitable and segues into two less predictable, equally pointed battles. It’s remarkably subtle about a seemingly crass scene, and if it caricatures its smug students while allowing the street level characters more complexity that’s a refreshing turn-around as much as it is easy points-scoring about white privilege and cultural appropriation.