Toronto 2017 Review: BODIED Battle Raps Our Current Cultural Moment
Eager-beaver, and ready to rumble, Bodied, huffs and puffs its way into our current cultural moment with impeccable timing. Produced by Eminem and directed by cult (or as the cool kids say, 'vulgar') auteur, Joseph Kahn whose straight-faced ludicrousness on display in Torque and Detention have earned each a tiny but enthusiastic following. Here, with Slim Shady blessing and Kahn's amped music-video sensibility, they invert the 8 Mile rags to eventual (offscreen) riches story, into a bold, hyper-progressive satire. One that sees a bookish Berkley masters student trash-fire most of his white privilege in an earnest effort to become legit in the self-aware-misogynistic world of Battle Rap. Bridges, oh so many bridges, ones you probably never even knew existed, are consumed as paradoxes and inequality of 21st century America keep feeding the flames.
Screen-writer Alex Larsen plows into cultural appropriation, gender politics, class, systemic racism, and pretty much every social justice beachhead with a cheerful disregard of personal protective equipment beyond Kahn's visual story telling. One thing is for certain, a lot of people are going to feel deeply uncomfortable in between polarized and segregated laughs. I very much look forward to not reading the online think-piece reactions to the film by the increasingly echo-chambered collective. This irony is not lost on the screenplay, which spends a lot of time on both the personal and the collective mindsets.
Kahn's only concessions to viewer accessibility are the familiar 'sports-movie' three-act form, and a highly special effects augmented aesthetic that recalls Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The nerdy lead of the film, Adam, played by Calum Worthy, feels like a composite of Michael Cera and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina).
While writing his graduate thesis on 'The N-Word,' Adam, of course, is in a dither to fully spell out the word in his paper, he gets caught up in the underground scene of underground rap battles. His feminist, vegan girlfriend vacillates between mildly curious and outright offended by his research, but is comfortable enough to drive her boyfriend and her white Prius (frankly, I am amazed it isn’t a Tesla) to the venues. Things come to a head when Adam is geeking out about theory in the parking lot to his soon-to-be-mentor, Behn (played Jackie Long, who is real heart of the film). A far more belligerent white-poseur allows Adam the opportunity to put things into practice, and send him on his way, one ‘bar’ at a time.
Things move along more-or-less, the usual lines (that is, until they don't) as Adam gets pulled into the subculture, and the diverse group of characters on the scene. There are plenty of battles along the way - it is impossible to take all of the bars in on a single viewing. They come fast and furious and have a chorus-cum-laugh-track of 'Ooooww' and 'that's tight' from the on-screen cluster of spectators. Pro Tip: Be sure to watch in a theatre with a good, clear, sound-mix. That is if Bodied ever manages to find its way into a multiplex, it screams to leap over conventional movie distribution and end up on a far less controversy-averse streaming service.
Adam's Berkeley lifestyle becomes supplanted with his new friends and he has to deal with his outsider status. Both in the minority-polyglot (from Persian to Korean to Latino and every shade of Black) of the battle rap culture, where he is an educated white tourist, and, increasingly the University campus where his father (a small but effective appearance by Anthony Michael Hall) has tenure, the Dean has an activist history, and his soon-to-be-former classmates have progressive agendas that have calcified in their own privileged safe spaces.
It is fitting that a movie about, battle rap - an art-form of hyperbolic verbal confrontation for entertainment purposes - should be as confrontational with its artistic and entertainment intentions. While Bodied is firmly grounded in its 'Rocky-on-its-ear' skeleton structure, it is happy to free-form and reinvent the details. This offers a surprisingly detailed look at the expectations of success and integrity, with all of its radioactive fallout. By the time the rap battles and circling camera moves start to feel a bit repetitive, the film has its cast of characters in headspaces and mindsets that haul the story over the finish line.
Satire is tricky business; one weak link and the entire edifice collapses. Bodied is a brash and loud testament that America might somehow weather its current escalating cultural cluster-fuck. As always, it will sharp wit and open mindedness (and increasingly foul language) that provide the key.