It’s odd to think that it’s now been more than 20 years since Eminem broke big, and with him, a broader cultural debate about who rap is for, and who it’s not for, and who exactly gets to determine who’s sorted into each of those categories. But enough time has elapsed that now Marshall Mathers can move on to producing a film like Bodied, which reignites that debate by transposing those questions to the modern era. In the new version, that question of who rap is “for” becomes even harder to answer when rap is now mainstream, from the music to the culture. Now anybody can obsess over rap, and learn about its histories, and become a “well actually” snob about it. Now, as Soundcloud has proved in abundance, just about anyone can even become a rapper. All you need is the ability to stunt like you know what you’re doing until people trust that you actually do.
That’s hardly all you need to last in rap, or to truly “make it,” but it’s enough to get you through the door. At least, that’s the case writer-director Joseph Kahn makes with Bodied, a delirious opus of contradictory social dialogues and unforgiving insults. In the view of Kahn and co-writer Alex Larsen (himself an ex-battle rapper), battle rap is the ultimate democratic platform. Once a battle begins, race and gender and class only matter as much as the punchlines they offer to the rapper. You’re simply either able to spit, or you’re not, and the rest of the world’s social conventions fall by the wayside for a few tense minutes at a time. Battles might not exist outside of social mores, but at the very least they shift reality into some parallel realm, one where a veteran insult rapper can stand toe to toe with a gawky white graduate student, and the latter can wipe the floor with the former.
That’s what happens when Adam (Calum Worthy) takes his affinity for rap battles to the next level. A New Yorker turned UC-Berkeley student, Adam’s in the process of working on his master’s thesis about the linguistic and stylistic purposes of the N-word in battle rap. His girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), a staunch third-wave feminist, politely tolerates Adam’s infatuation with battle rap without fully understanding it; to her, it’s simply an excuse for amateurs to enter a space where they can say any offensive thing they want without fear of reprisal, to uphold the patriarchy using the language of subversion. To Adam, however, battle rap offers substantially more than the shabby, word-of-mouth industry around it suggests at a glance. To Adam, it’s a place where the id of the greater world can be unleashed, where the meticulous structure of acclaimed poetry becomes entwined with the improvisational game of dozens that battle rap has long represented.
One night, after an event meets an early end due to a fistfight (a fairly commonplace occurrence), Adam’s dragged into a battle with an overzealous burnout in the parking lot. He not only wins, but wipes the floor with his competition. Soon Adam’s befriended by Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), a renowned SoCal battle rapper, and finds himself welcomed into an ever-growing circle of friends, and sometimes, competitors. After all, as Adam quickly learns, there’s a mutual respect in battle circles that transcends what’s said in the “ring,” at least up to a point. Even Megaton (Dizaster), a roided-out terror who reigns over the film’s territory, still invites the competition to his decadent house parties. As Adam works his way ever deeper into the scene, and his wins begin to pile up, he’s forced to confront the hypocrisy of virtually everyone around him, from his girlfriend to his social circle to the other rappers to even himself.
A longtime music video director, Kahn peppers the film’s numerous battle sequences with blasts of visual invention, even if not all of them land successfully. (His tendency to punctuate rappers’ gunshot noises with muzzle flashes on their hands starts out clever, until it takes a turn for the overdone.) What’s ironic about Kahn’s frenetic visual approach to the film is that Bodied is never more riveting than when it simply steps back and lets the rappers (a mix of actors and real-life artists) do what they do best. This includes an endless volley of staggering one-liners, alternately hysterical and searingly venomous, delivered with a breathless passion that buoys the film through both its more familiar beats (outsider integrates himself into an unconventional subculture) and the sticky political territory it frequently cannonballs into. Bodied is often an incredibly funny movie, even when some of its jokes hurt and others are made out of the kind of squirming secondhand discomfort that will turn some viewers off even as others latch onto it with glee.
Whether it’s Megaton making a gangly nerd cry mid-battle or Adam (who, in a great deadpan gag, is billed simply as “Adam” throughout) mentally clicking through folders labeled “too personal” and “way too personal” in mid-battle, Bodied has a keen eye for the fine details of the battle rap scene. So it’s then a shame when the film’s secondary story becomes such a drag on the riveting action of the battle sequences. While the conversations between Adam and Maya none-too-subtly play out the film’s broader political implications, and Uphold in particular brings a lot of charm and depth to a character that could’ve (and occasionally does) turn into an ugly, broad stereotype, Bodied has an unfortunate tendency to stop just short of landing some of its most aggressive punches. This is especially true of the way in which the film handles Adam, who’s at once a bit of a walking punchline and the film’s barely questioned hero, which becomes increasingly disquieting as the rest of the movie calls people like Adam into question for whether they’re simply a smarter, more nefarious kind of cultural tourist.
Being able to break something down into meticulous theoretical diagrams is all well and good, but it doesn’t speak to the gut-level feeling of a medium like battle rap, and Bodied frequently struggles with the tension of whether Adam is an unsung diamond in the rough, or a culture vulture, or where one stops and the other begins when it comes to his fandom (some would say fetishization) of the scene. That’s no fault of Worthy’s, however, who delivers a blistering turn in a deeply complicated role. He’s a genius and a shit, a genuine enthusiast and a geek who wants dominion over the thing he loves whether or not it’s for him. In one of his first battles, Adam struggles to deliver a single effective line, aware that he’s holding back. There’s a sense of liberation that the actor exudes when he finally cuts loose from his west coast liberalism and goes in on his opponent with all the filthy bars he can dream up on the spot, and even if the film never gets as far as truly speaking to the more troubling implications of that gift, Worthy ably lends depth to a kid who lacks one of the things that makes an artist truly great: maturity.
In any number of ways, Bodied is meant to provoke. It attacks political sacred cows with abandon, and at least a few of the lines uttered throughout are genuinely jaw-dropping in their audacity. It needles a very particular segment of the audience, one which will undoubtedly have quite a bit to say about it, with its shots at “social justice warriors” and the ways in which even well-meaning leftists can sometimes lapse into their own unpleasant cultural assumptions and expectations. It’s a provocation, and for the most part, it’s an effective one. Yet for a film all about verbal and physical blows, Bodied seems to grow skittish when it comes to landing the nastiest ones, the ones that would call its own ideals into question. It’s just insightful enough to leave audiences wishing that it were more so.