Joseph Kahn’s ‘Bodied’ Satirizes PC Culture Through Battle Rap
16 years after B-Rabbit (Eminem) destroyed Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) in that infamous final rap battle in “8 Mile,” another young white man aims to follow in his footsteps in dramedy “Bodied.” Former Disney Channel star Calum Worthy stars as Adam Merkin, a Berkeley graduate student who is first introduced exploring the Oakland rap battle scene solely for research, as he hopes to write his thesis on this underground form of expression. A natural wordsmith himself, Adam, who proves to be just as much an object of curiosity to his new friends as they are to him, finds himself an unlikely rising star in the rap battle world in this amusing and sometimes cringeworthy film that explores the power of words.
With production help from Eminem, director Joseph Kahn, who was inspired to make “Bodied” after receiving backlash for his music video for Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” a clip that features the singer playing an actress filming a movie similar to “Out of Africa,” takes on the brand of political correctness common amongst the mostly-white elite. Although he does his best to blend in — His father (Anthony Michael Hall) is a prominent professor, after all — the outwardly genteel Adam finds himself internally battling his pompous, privileged friends as they drone on about identity politics. However, he has a soft spot for the most insufferable of them all, his girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold). Portrayed as a joyless shrew, Maya gets off on being offended, and it’s no surprise when her head practically explodes when Adam takes her to a battle.
The best parts of “Bodied” involve Adam’s realizing that he must forget all that he thinks he knows about cultural sensitivity in order to earn the respect of his fellow rappers. It’s quite a contradiction from his other life as a progressive grad student, where his words and actions are policed. While clever quips don’t go unappreciated in the rap battle world, it’s often the cheapest shots that gets the biggest applause. Adam’s two worlds collide after one of his performances go viral. After he argues that what he does in his private life is no one’s business, his father delivers a harsh truth for the digital age: Nothing is private.
That heart of “Bodied,” if there is one, is Adam’s relationship with Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), an underground rapper who is also living a double life. “Ever hear of code-switching?” He retorts when Adam call him out. Predictably, once accepted, Adam eventually takes things too far. Behn, the most sympathetic character, also proves to be the wisest warrior after his final battle.
“Bodied” only feels false in the moments when it tries too hard in taking on sexism and racism. Most of the female characters are pretty one-note, even Devine Wright (Shoniqua Shandai), who delivers some very on-the-nose dialogue about the downside to being the crew’s only female rapper. She and another marginalized rapper, Korean Prospek (Dumbfoundead), attempt to school an audience by teaming up to take on stereotypes in what is supposed to be an epic battle, something that feels inauthentic in a world that otherwise makes “8 Mile” look like “Sesame Street.” However, Debra Wilson delivers big laughs in her cameo as the school dean who disapproves of Adam’s extracurriculars.
“Bodied” opens Nov. 2 in select theaters.