This is a re-post of our Bodied review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is now playing in limited release.
Joseph Kahn’s Bodied will probably be sold as a celebration of rap battles, but the director’s new film has a lot more on its mind than just two rappers lobbing insults at each other. The movie dives head first into controversy, eager to explore why words are hurtful, what causes offense, and cross-cultural appropriation. It’s a film that doesn’t have all the answers, and sometimes trips over its own words and ideas in its rush to encourage conversation and chastise those who would shut it down in the name of decency and sensitivity. Thankfully, Bodied never feels pedantic as it breezily flies through jokes, critiques, and colorful characters while spitting brilliantly constructed bars.
Adam (Calum Worthy), a graduate student at Berkeley, is doing research for his thesis on rap battling, which he sees as “competitive poetry”, when he inadvertently ends up battling and discovers he has a talent for it. Despite the protestations of his overbearing girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), Adam ends up getting deeper into the rap battle scene with Beyn Grymm (Jackie Long) as his mentor and guide in a world where leveling the most offensive comments garners the greatest praise. However, this journey eventually puts Adam at odds with the liberals that see his actions as appropriation at best and horribly racist, sexist, and homophobic at worst.
Kahn clearly takes some glee in being offensive, but Bodied moves beyond simply trying to get a rise out of the audience by actually trying to engage in topics rather than running for a moral high ground. For Kahn, everything needs to be on the table, especially in the service of art, and while that art doesn’t excuse everything, it at least serves as a starting place for conversation rather than trying to shut it down before it even starts. Ironically, Bodied probably would have been a much safer film if it just stuck to a heightened world of rap battling, but the movie invites controversy because it wants us to have a conversation. We may not like where that conversation goes and it may not be pleasant, but for Bodied, the greater crime would be remaining silent and self-congratulatory for performative wokeness.
Thankfully, Bodied only occasionally lapses into lecture or meta-commentary (there’s one cringeworthy scene where Maya basically comments on her own place in the story and how the audience is meant to perceive her), instead relying on humor and character to make its point rather than dryly offering a treatise on what causes offense in America in 2017. The hook of the film is basically, “What if a nerdy white kid became a rap battler?” and the movie gets a surprising amount of mileage out of that premise with Worthy charmingly muddling his way through the rap battle scene before exploding in a cacophony of masterfully constructed and deliciously vile rhymes against his opponents.
Kahn is incredibly confident when he gets his characters into the rap battles, but outside of these scenes, the film sometimes struggles with where to go. It doesn’t quite know how to develop Adam’s character, and his turn at the climax of the movie seems abrupt, although it results in a surprising and ballsy payoff. Additionally, Bodied doesn’t always know the best way to approach its controversial topics, so instead it comes at them head-on with characters serving as mouthpieces rather than people even if their points are well made.
And yet these feel like minor qualms in a movie that’s so bombastic and eager to offend, not for the sake of a reaction, but to actually question why that reaction exists. Even if you have no interest in rap battling, Bodied will suck you in and send you spinning with the battles. You’ll love seeing words used as weapons, and you’ll never stop considering the wounds they inflict.