Part rap musical, part social satire, with elements of Westerns and kung fu pictures, “Bodied” is one of the funniest, freest movies of the year. It’s so consistently audacious that when you get towards the end of its overstuffed running time and realize it actually wants to be the kind of film it mocks—a Tarzan fantasy along the lines of “8 Mile,” the biography of Eminem, who helped produce this very motion picture—you can’t but be disappointed. But there’s still plenty to admire.
We first meet the film’s redheaded Anglo hero, hip-hop fan Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), attending an underground rap battle with his girlfriend, fellow grad student Maya (Rory Uphold). Adam convinces one of the victorious African-American rappers, a quasi-legend who goes by Behn Grym (Jackie Long), to be interviewed for his thesis about “the very poetic use of the n-word in battle rap.” “There are plenty of n-words you could ask about the n-word,” Grym retorts. This is one of many lines in “Bodied” with a poet’s sense of how changing the context of a word can alter its intent. Written by Alex Larsen, a Toronto writer who raps as Kid Twist, and directed by Joseph Kahn, a music video veteran, this is a film about language as power. It’s about how words are used and abused, originated and appropriated, and how terms can seem like literary abstractions in one context and incitements to violence in another.
Our first object lesson arrives when another white wannabe rapper challenges Behn to a battle in the parking lot outside the show, honking cornball rhymes and spiraling his hands over the brim of his sideways ball cap. It’s like one of those ritualized moments in an old Western where a young braggart challenges a world-weary gunslinger to a draw (the punk even has an outlaw’s pseudonym, Billy Pistols). Behn keeps his guns holstered. Adam, a more upscale version of this very same pest, steps up in Behn’s place and vanquishes the upstart, to his own surprise as well as everybody else’s. The victory goes viral on social media, triggering a formal offer to battle again and sparking visions of grandeur in the mind of Adam, a bookish young poet who’s lived his life in the shadow of his dad, a famous novelist and professor who teaches at the same school Adam is attending (he’s played by Anthony Michael Hall, who would’ve starred as Adam back in the day).
Adam treats his upcoming face-off with a Korean-American rapper named Prospek (rapper-actor Dumbfoundead) like a final exam that he can ace through research and sheer nerve. Ace it he does, though at a cost, reaching for stereotypes he swore he’d avoid. “At least you knew I was Korean,” Prospek tells Adam afterward. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.” But even Prospek isn’t sold on the idea that rappers are merely performers. When he raises his glass in toast and speaks in Korean, his subtitle reads, “You’re a racist piece of shit.” “Thanks, man!” chirps Adam.
This poses a question that scholars of hip-hop as well as rock, stand-up comedy, and transgressive theater and cinema have all had to grapple with: if your art is chum to the reptile brain, and your best rhymes inflict emotional pain, are you an artist, or are you a sadist? And do casualties get to complain?
The best parts of “Bodied” put those questions under a microscope and examine it through prisms of varied life experience. These are represented by the multicultural bomber crew that orbits Behn, including zaftig Black female rapper Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai); Latinx rapper Che Corleone (Walter Perez), who’s as horny as he is loquacious; and Maya, who tags along until the rancid atmosphere makes her sick. A subplot finds Devine and Che bonding over how tired they are of their adversaries’ racist and sexist material, then coming up with a smart way to mock them in the arena. Adam and Behn continue their conversations about whether a the n-word is defused if a Black man uses it, and if it’s marginally more acceptable for an Asian or Latinx rapper to use it. “There’s a difference between using the word and referencing the word,” Behn warns Adam. But who gets to decide when the line’s been crossed?
At one point, “Bodied” pits Behn against a towering white rapper who spews bigoted slurs that are too gleeful to be dismissed as being “in character.” It’s clear he’s exploiting a loophole that allows him to shout racist things at nonwhite people without getting punched in the face. But is the problem his ideas, or his loutish presentation? When Adam goes in the ring and makes jokes about Asians having slanted eyes and eating dogs, is it permissible because he’s a shrimpy academic who puts giant inflatable air quotes around the racism, and makes sure to let everyone know it’s a put-on? Do nonwhite rappers get a pass for racist tropes, and if so, why? What about straight men who use homophobic or gendered insults? And what of the drive to humiliate and dominate, a pastime that crosses experiential lines?
“I don’t see how anybody could be a good person when they spend all of their time thinking of horrible things to say about someone,” Maya tells Adam in the very first scene. It’s one of many moments where a character that other films would treat as a killjoy turns out to be a righteous person who’s asking valid questions. Maya gets skewered in “Bodied,” a film that reserves special ire for posturing campus leftists. She’s a snarky vegan who distinguishes between Tupac and Assata Shakur right before shuddering in revulsion at a Black homeless man sleeping on a bench. But just when you’re about to write her off as the usual no-fun girlfriend, you realize Adam is guilty of every sin she accuses him of committing, from exoticizing Black men and parroting sexist and homophobic language to acting as if slurs magically turn harmless when you wave the wand of “performance” over them. Adam never gives himself a rap name in “Bodied,” but another character’s unsolicited label suits him: MC Microaggression.
The most impressive things about “Bodied” are its control of tone and pace, its love of language, and its comfort with every kind of humor. It boasts intellectualized wordplay that fuses poetry and rap with Shakespearean constructions in which language examines itself. But it also has double-takes, pratfalls, eruptions of cartoonish rage and fear, and sight gags that amplify scenes that were already funny, as when our heroes check out a skid row motel while trying not to seem nervous: Kahn cuts to a man peeing on the sidewalk, a junkie shooting up, and an obviously fake giant waterbug scuttling across the check-in desk not once, but twice. It’s Abbott and Costello on Skid Row.
Larsen’s script gets high on its own supply, letting Adam make like Neo in the “Matrix” trilogy and challenge nonwhite masters for dominance in an art he’s barely begun to practice. Both Adam and the script that tells his story have a killer instinct for the delusions of every character, regardless of race, class or gender; but when the time comes to stop drawing blood with knife flicks, turn the blade inward and plunge it deep, “Bodied” chokes. Still, scene for scene, this is a remarkable film, superbly acted, directed, photographed and edited, thought provoking but unpretentious. It holds a mirror up to itself as well as to hip-hop culture, and stares until it blinks.