Joseph Kahn has directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Eminem. Clearly, he’s someone very in touch with contemporary style, music, art, and film. Those things serve him well with Bodied, a movie about rap battles. This is an unusual picture, in that it’s overwrought to the point of becoming tiresome, yet it also has some worthy things to say about race and its use in pop culture. The film screened at Fantasia 2018.
Former Disney Channel star Calum Worthy plays way against type as Adam, a young (white) man writing his Master’s thesis on the use of the N-word in the competitive rapping community. His investigations put him into the orbit of a master rapper, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Through a series of events, Behn encourages Adam to take on another guy in an impromptu battle, and it turns out that he’s kind of good at it. This gives him entry into the competitions themselves. Adam’s politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) is none too happy about him partaking in an event that routinely utilizes misogynist and racist terminology.
The value of Bodied is twofold. First, it has a ring of authenticity in its portrayal of rap battling, taking you into a culture where bravado and creative wordplay are powerful tools. As Adam points out, it’s really people competing against each other using cleverly-crafted, sometimes vulgar poetry. Second, and more importantly, the movie is an examination of how different races view each other — and themselves. In order to fully make it in rap battling, Adam has to adhere to the style, which involves saying racist things that he would never dream of saying in daily conversation. At the same time, to say such things means that they must first be thought. Bodied suggests that we all have a touch of racism within us somewhere.
Concurrent with that, the film wants to be a satire of political correctness and the mindset, common especially among younger people, that every sentence uttered by someone must be intensely scrutinized to determine whether it could be even the slightest bit insensitive to any group of individuals. That’s absolutely worthy of satire, and there are moments when Bodied hits the comic bullseye. More often, though, the movie is too on-the-nose about it. The point of satire is that the message need not be explained; it’s inherent in the joke. The screenplay has a tendency to have the satire explain itself, which robs it of humor.
A few other things undermine the picture’s total success. The performances are mostly very exaggerated. Worthy, for instance, plays Adam with that broad quality that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcom stars are trained in. He raps credibly, but his scenes outside the ring make Adam nerdy to an un-relatable degree. Bodied also runs two full hours, which is much longer than the story needs to make its point.
There’s definitely some good stuff in here, particularly the rap battles themselves, which — just by sheer virtue of the things said — point out that offensive remarks are sanctioned in certain situations, yet still bring with them repercussions and the ability to wound. Those positives are, however, buried under a needlessly long running time and frequent heavy-handedness.
Bodied deserves admiration for its ambition, even if the execution isn’t where it could have been.
For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.
For my reviews of movies in current theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.