Joseph Kahn is a provocateur, a bomb thrower, a shit-stirrer. On Twitter he almost consistently trolls pitbull owners, retweeting and sharing stories of the breed mauling babies and other innocents. But it’s clear that Kahn isn’t just fucking around, he also believes what he’s saying (even if I fundamentally disagree with him on this topic)… although he’s also fucking around. Both of these things are true at once.
If you know that about Kahn, you’ll get Bodied, a movie that is about the battle rap scene but that is also about race and free speech and the consequences of your words. Kahn is capable of coming at a subject from multiple angles at once, and while Bodied may begin like a juvenile exercise in profound verbal offensiveness, it eventually becomes something weightier, more meaningful and more interesting.
What’s more, while the film seems to be on the side of gleeful irreverence and begins almost like a pro-triggering manifesto, by the end it gets way more nuanced. Bodied isn’t telling us anything, it’s asking us things, and in today’s binary woke vs ‘free speech’ online culture that’s absolutely revolutionary. Bodied isn’t walking up to you and making statements of fact, it’s presenting you a lot of different arguments and sometimes pulling the rug out from under you in terms of whose argument it finds most convincing. But in the end the movie gives you the space to come up with your own ideas and beliefs, rather than finish up like an After School Special with a tidy moral lesson.
Kahn is throwing bombs here, but he’s throwing them with tactical accuracy, trying to blow up the barriers behind which we’re all crouched. He’s trying to get a conversation started.
Adam is an English grad student who is doing his thesis on the use of the N-word in battle rap; while it’s easy to dismiss him as a white boy looking for a pass (as his new friend, battle rap luminary Behn Grymm does at first), the reality is that Adam is coming from a complicated series of motivations. Yes, he kind of wants to say the most offensive stuff possible, but he’s also trying to match up to his dad, a cultural critic who made his bones comparing early battle rap to the poetry of samurai. But more than that, Adam loves the form – he loves the wordplay, he loves the writing, he loves the bravado, he loves the whole scene. There is no binary here – Adam is not racist or woke, good or bad, right or wrong – just a messy human person.
Calum Worthy is extraordinary as Adam; most of the film rests on his shoulders, and much of Adam’s humanity has to come from Worthy. The script, by Alex Larson (aka battle rapper Kid Twist), relies heavily on our familiarity with the beats of this kind of competition/underdog movie, and so Worthy is left to fill in many of the blanks in Adam’s psyche. What’s incredible is that he can do it with just his eyes, or his posture; Kahn, a relentlessly inventive visual filmmaker, takes us inside Adam’s mind through a number of fun on-screen tricks and effects, but none are as powerful as just Worthy changing his expression like a storm cloud passing over the sun. When he straightens his shoulders he goes from goofy to powerful, and when he switches up his cadence (Worthy is a credit to his race as a battle rapper) he transforms.
That transformation is key. It’s in battle rap that Adam finds something the defines him and makes him special; coming into the scene as a fan and a researcher, he finds that he has a true affinity for the form. But he also finds that battle rapping begins to change him in less flattering ways; he becomes angrier, sharper of tongue. And in the end he winds up in a place where he’s willing to to use deeply personal, line-crossing information in his raps in order to win. But Bodied doesn’t get simplistic with this; it doesn’t pass judgment or label Adam as inherently bad. It gives him room to grow and change, and it doesn’t end on a pat moment of awakening. Bodied ends in a way that leaves lots of room for you to argue with your friends and to find your own truth in what you’ve seen.
Which is part of the point. Kahn is deliberately making a movie that pushes boundaries in order to argue that boundaries should be pushed, but he’s not a sociopath. He’s aware of the humanity of all the people in his movie, and he’s aware of the meaning and weight of words. Bodied isn’t saying ‘they’re just words’ when it comes to slurs and insults; rather it’s saying ‘words have power and meaning, and that power and meaning can be complex.’ Code switching is an integral part of what Bodied is exploring; in one conversation one person can be two or more things. The same goes for words or stereotypes – they can be weapons or they can be hugs. The same word is wildly offensive in one context and warm and loving in another. It depends on the mouth saying the word, the tone of the word, the timing of the word.
So while Bodied is making fun of easily offended liberals who seek to ban certain language, it’s also keenly aware of the impact of the words it’s throwing around so cavalierly. It’s structured like a drug movie in that at first everything is wild and freeing – all of the slurs and racial jokes being thrown around are exhilarating in their danger – but eventually that goes sour. The movie doesn’t end with characters renouncing slurs, but it does get really nuanced with how slurs work and what a slur really is, and the ways that words can damage relationships and people.
What I can’t get over is how wide Bodied’s point of view truly is. At first Adam’s girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) seems like a stock uptight bitch character – so much so that I was disappointed that Kahn and Larson had gone so cheap. But by the end she gets to make her case, essentially breaking the fourth wall and calling the audience out for assuming she’s just a stock character. That scene, by the way, sums up what is right and what is wrong with Bodied – Kahn is willing to play with form and to push beyond realism, but too many characters in this movie need to address their motivations and feelings directly. It’s a weakness of the script that this stuff needs to be explicated so directly, even if the way that Kahn does it is fun and rule-breaking.
Still, despite that shortcoming, Bodied makes room for everybody’s point of view – even the racist guy who battle raps just so he has a safe space to spit slurs. What Bodied understands is that showing these POVs doesn’t condone them but rather contextualizes them and allows us to engage with them and better deal with them.
I think that all of this talk about points of view and the thematic and philosophical aspects of Bodied is obscuring something important – this movie is fun as fuck. I watched it alone at home and was shouting “OH SHIIIIIT!” and “Oh NO!” over and over at some of the bars these battle rappers were dropping on one another. Some of these battles are like fucking Dresden, just a total firebombing. What’s amazing is that Larson’s script manages to find really new and funny racial slurs for the characters to throw at one another; one of the movie’s points is that racial slurs are one thing, but tired and cliched racial slurs are another, and there is some true inventiveness on display here. The movie’s philosophy on this comes clear when Prospek, the Korean-American battle rapper, appreciates the Asian jokes Adam throws his way – “You recognized I was Korean,” he says. “That’s positively woke by battle rap standards.”
Kahn casts his film fairly woke as well; Adam is white, but he’s surrounded by a group of pals so multicultural they could be the street gang in a crime movie trying to be inoffensive. Each of the characters has their own small journey and while Worthy does most of the film’s heavy acting lifting, he’s supported by some quality performers in their own rights. Jackie Long is fantastic as Behn Grymm, code-switching within the character moment by moment. Grymm lives two lives – one as a street-hardened battle rapper and one as a family man video game designer – and Long makes them both valid and real. Neither is a mask, both are expressions of who he truly is. Shoniqua Sandai is Devine Wright, and she’s got a fierce quality that covers a layer of frustration, one that she uses to extraordinary effect in her final battle (which I won’t spoil, but which I think is a masterclass in the question of why it’s okay for some groups to say some things and not for other groups). Jonathan Park, veteran of Kahn’s previous great film DETENTION, is Prospek, and he brings his real life rap skills to play here in truly impressive ways.
Maybe most interesting is Dizaster, real life battle rap champion, playing Megaton. If there’s a villain in this film (there really isn’t) it’s Megaton, and he’s the embodiment of fragile masculinity. Dizaster is fantastic in the role, bringing both the bluster and the vulnerability that informs the bluster. He lets you see the weakness that fuels the bravado, but he doesn’t make Megaton seem pathetic – he makes him seem dangerous.
There’s no doubt that this movie will be wildly offensive to some people; there’s a whole industry built up around getting mad about stuff like this. But anyone calling ‘problematic’ at Bodied will be making some of the film’s own points for it. By creating a context-free culture of shaming and silence, we have clamped down on our ability to communicate, Bodied said. But at the same time the film isn’t celebrating unfettered, consequence-free speech – it’s simply saying some things are worth the consequences.
Kahn doesn’t sacrifice style for his messaging; he’s one of the most interesting and talented visual filmmakers working today, which is why this movie getting shunted to YouTube is such a bummer. Still, great visual storytelling remains great on your phone as well as on the big screen, and Bodied is told with a master’s touch.
Small disclosure: I know Joseph Kahn and I am friendly with him. I’ve spoken to him about how he studies the work of Spielberg, and I mean STUDIES it. He breaks down Spielberg’s shots compulsively, mapping out the way the man works and thinks. This, I believe, has made Kahn the true heir to Spielberg – not in the way JJ Abrams has become, just lifting whole shots and sequences complete, being an ultimate mimic, but rather in the truest possible way. BODIED doesn’t look like a Spielberg film, but Kahn has come to understand the way that Spielberg uses cinematic language, and he approaches his filmmaking from that angle. It’s not that he’s making a Spielberg film, it’s that he asks himself how Spielberg would approach a sequence and WHY he would approach it that way – what the camera angle is saying, how the editing works, why Spielberg arranges his mise en scene as he does – and then goes from there.
As a result Kahn’s work has always been extraordinarily visually cohesive and compelling, even when he’s at his most antic and strange (Kahn has a taste for stylistic flourishes that Spielberg doesn’t have). That continues in Bodied; he shoots his battle rap scenes with absolute kinetic energy, but even his non-rap sequences barrel off the screen. He’s a master at getting the tone of a scene across in a shot, before even a word has been spoken, and in a movie like this – where the tone can oscillate wildly – it’s a gift.
It’s a pity that Kahn doesn’t make more films – his release schedule is like that of a cicada – but part of the slowness comes from his insistence on making his own movies. I have been a fan since Torque, one of the great misunderstood modern films, and I think that Bodied proves he hasn’t lost a step AND that his slow pace ensures he’s getting to say what he wants to say. It’s hard to imagine Bodied getting through a standard moviemaking process – the whole thing is like sweaty nitroglycerin, ready to explode in the wrong hands.
Kahn has the right hands. What he’s ended up making here is a moment-defining film that is both raging satire and swooning love letter, a movie that is ironically distanced while also having its bleeding heart absolutely exposed. This is the movie he’s been building up towards over the years, a pop culture-soaked movie that has deep things to say about the culture in which it was brewed. This might also be his most personal film, the movie that comes closest to expressing his own ideology and philosophy.
But most of all Bodied is fun and funny. Yes, it’s the kind of movie that Anthony Michael Hall’s cultural critic/professor would slobber all over, but it’s also just a damn good time, a terrific underdog story that dives into a world so unique it almost seems made up, like it couldn’t possibly exist. But it does, and the thrill of peeking into (what is likely a super heightened version of) this world is one of the great pleasures you get from good filmmaking.
Bodied is a molotov cocktail hurled right at every one of our assumptions and beliefs, challenging us to examine them all and forcing us to question whether or not our black and white worldviews are giving us all the information we truly need. That a film can challenge us while making us laugh at so many things that are beyond the social pale – that’s incredible. Bodied is the movie we needed this year, a movie that has the guts to speak not AGAINST the current orthodoxy but to question it, as we should be question any and all orthodoxies. It’s juvenile, it’s offensive, it’s the slap in the face we need.