Joseph Kahn’s Bodied begins in a pretty comprehensible form, reminiscent of 8 Mile; it could be a boxing movie, for that matter. Two men enter a ring, and see who can best the other. Here, it’s rap battles, but they very quickly take on a metaphoric and discursive quality outside of their art form when, following one match, the camera whips around to a scrawny white graduate student, Adam (Calum Worthy) who explains the methods and structure on display to his hipster-glasses girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold). It is not unlikely, either, that he is explaining these things a white audience.
As becomes truer and truer the more it plugs away, Bodied uses rap battles as an opportunity to freely discuss race relations, trigger warnings, representation issues, the politics of language/identity/gender, class issues, and a host of other very-up-to-date woke conversations. Including, for that matter, the appropriation of terms like “woke.” It’s so contemporary that despite premiering in 2017, a character (possibly in re-recorded dialogue) explicitly positions the film as taking place in 2018. It’s an aggressive snapshot of a certain emotional state, of constantly checking one’s privilege and inevitably coming up empty, of giving into the worst trollish impulses and instantly regretting that exposure, yet hungering for more. And yeah, it’ll probably make more sense if you spend a lot of time Online.
Kahn is most prolific in the realm of music videos, having made dozens for some of the most famous recording artists of the past twenty-plus years, including Public Enemy, Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, Eminem (who produced Bodied), Lady Gaga, Muse, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift, among many others. Like most video directors who get into features (this is his third, following 2004’s Torque and 2011’s Detention), this sensibility is less evident in the so-called “music video” or “MTV” editing that was often derided in the 1990s than it is in creating a “look.” Bodied doesn’t just place its battles in rundown basements and empty warehouses – they are the versions of those spaces we’re sold, that seem spotless and infested all at once, like the grime was sealed in by thick plastic. The same goes for its shitty apartments, its classrooms, its homes. They’re all the catalogue’s-eye editions, the people who populate them representing the people who populate those spaces just as much as, if not more than, they’re supposed to be any kind of real people.
This makes it all the more disarming when Alex Larsen’s screenplay doubles back on a “type” to show a different side of them. Adam, for example, seems at first opportunistic, ready to appropriate any side of black culture he can get his hands on, but when he’s given a chance to step up and do battle himself, his style remains very White, very stiff. That is, until he gets a few more battles under his feet, and he starts to more and more claim them as his own, rather than remain the outsider he is. He’s not the only white guy at these battles, but none of them have any chill. They’re out to dominate, become lord rather than participant. Adam, whose entire reason for being there revolves around investigation rather than immersion, can only end up on the same track.
His chief object of study, whom he follows under a supposition of friendship he never attempts to earn, is Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), who is good enough that he doesn’t have to put up the show of machismo the others do. He’s in the game for a somewhat noble purpose that also complicates his character, first in ways that reveal Adam’s racism, then in ways that illuminate Behn’s, without quite tipping the screenplay to being over-explanatory. Larsen, himself a battle rapper known as Kid Twist, defines characters remarkably deftly for a first-time writer, carving out a whole community in very little time. It maybe wears on a little long at the end, the climactic battle trying to encapsulate everything the film has done to that point; but it’s also a hell of a scene, fierce and suspenseful and constantly raising the stakes.
Anything but subtle but miles from didactic, Bodied is smart enough to know that having a point of view doesn’t remove the onus of artistic exploration. When too many films are racing to be the smartest, wokest one on the block, Bodied dwells in the certainty that there is rightness, but we’ll inevitably fall short of finding it.