For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Sticks and Stones: Joseph Kahn and Alex Larsen’s “Bodied”

Battle rap gets the spotlight in this manic, aggressive movie about identity politics and the ethics of speech.
“Words are weapons in the world’s most brutal lyrical sport.” That’s from the promo description of Bodied, the first ever fiction feature film about battle rap. The surely common question, “What the hell is battle rap?” gets a bracing answer within minutes of the film’s opening. The “lyrical sport” consists of two (or sometimes teams of two) rappers, with no music to back them, competing against each other to see who can be more virtuosic with their threats and/or insults.
Helmed by music video director Joseph Kahn, Bodied is a wild, jacked-up trip—disjunctive but somehow graceful. Kahn and his team jump across space, use slow- and fast-motion, push in on characters and switch perspectives with a mixture of finesse and aggression that’s entirely fitting for the story material. So much rap—and especially this kind of it—is about refined style applied to unrefined material, and Kahn is the man to bring it to us in movie form. The sense of restlessness and the near-total lack of stability is a matter of style keeping up with thought, imagery keeping up with words. I see that most clearly in the use of text and internal voiceover—lyrics appear before our eyes as they come to the lead character, and we see and hear more of his racing thoughts as they appear. The movie is, in part, about the struggle to master language—to stay true to both its power and its meaning. In that sense, it’s a story of failure, and the failure is the filmmakers’ too: they can’t keep up with their many ideas.
Kahn and his co-screenwriter Alex Larsen (a battler rapper himself) contrast the sport with the culture of “political correctness” in their story of a white university student doing his thesis on “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-Word in Battle Rap.” Adam (Calum Worthy) is geeky and meek but, in the movie’s first scene, he summons up the courage to introduce himself to black battler Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) at an event. When the two are challenged by a white wannabe battler (played by a real one, Charron), Adam finds himself responding with rhymes of his own; thus begins his journey from college kid to vicious, virtuoso MC. Along the way, the filmmakers get in digs at the identity-politics campus left, personified most strongly by Adam’s girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). As for battle rap—the flip side of the sensitivity coin—Kahn and Larsen don’t front on its nastiness, but it ultimately gets a qualified affirmation, though Adam is denigrated for his misunderstanding and exploitation of it.  
I’ve read a large handful of pieces on this film since its premiere at last year’s TIFF and its recent release by Neon and YouTube Premium. The sharpest two are Steven Shaviro’s cover article for Cinema Scope 74 and Adam Nayman’s review for The Ringer. For Shaviro, “Bodied rejects censorship, but it still insists that our choice of words matters.” Nayman’s review hones in on the drubbing the movie gives Adam, likening the character to a “vampire” feeding off battle culture.  
Shaviro writes, “The rap battles in Bodied are… filled with aggressively vile language that will deeply offend some viewers, while giving a delicious, naughty thrill to others.” For myself as a viewer, this is a false opposition. The thing is, I’m a diehard, channel-subscribing, pay-per-view-buying battle rap fan. The reason—no, one reason—is that the vile language in the sport is thrilling because it’s deeply offensive.
As a non-hetero leftist, I don’t support queer-phobia, racism or misogyny—let alone the murderous threats that are downplayed in Kahn and Larsen’s portrait of the sport. What I enjoy—besides the spirit of competitive lyrical virtuosity that used to define American rap and has now, to my disgust and dismay, almost disappeared from it—is the shock of offense, and, frankly, the general air of aggression. Some aggression-junkies find their fix in punk rock, some in Hollywood action movies, some in boxing or MMA or Maury paternity test episodes. I don’t like any of those things; I like rap, and the aggression, the lyrical finesse and the offensiveness you see in Bodied are in keeping with a lot of the stuff I grew up on.
I can’t speak for other fans, but for me the appeal of the sport—and of all good rap—lies mainly in the way the MCs use language as a musical instrument; to me, it’s self-evidently beautiful. It also comes from a certain harshness of character and, relatedly, the fact that I grew up in a domestic environment full of anger and verbal violence; for a good chunk of my life, words as weapons was something close to the default mode. Lastly, as I said, I just like to have some space in my life for scandal and shock, and most of it’s taken up by music; I think one reason I find the fist-in-the-face “transgressive” content of filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, Todd Solondz, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine so utterly feeble is that I’d taken in so much worse, so many times, long before their movies came along.  
The opposition of battle rap and campus social politics in Bodied fits right in with a long-standing American story tradition: the conflict between repression and wildness, which is there in everything from The Scarlet Letter to American Psycho, Stagecoach to Avatar. The repression, in many cases, comes from the restrictive bonds of community, and quite often it’s connected to the forces of the right: social conservatism, religion, authoritarianism… What’s fascinating about this movie is that the restrictiveness in its story comes from the left, or at least the most currently publicized section of it: university-campus social progressives and radicals.  
“Political correctness” is a term that’s mock-able enough to provide right-wingers with a shield of sarcasm (Gee, sorry if my MAGA hat isn’t “politically correct!”), and it denotes an epistemic and discursive closure that’s repugnant to many people, including myself. It’s certainly what Kahn and Larsen have in mind when it comes to their depiction of campus life. The students in this movie have almost buried themselves alive in agonizing over identity and representation. Laudably, they abhor sexism, racism and queer-phobia; laughably, their response to those things is to constantly tangle themselves up in continual accusation and anal self-questioning, most often expressed in the kind of academic vocabulary that, outside the academy, has become as familiar in parody as it has in sympathetic usage. Language is key here: in the movie—and for a lot of the real-life contemporary left—the presumed and/or imposed gulf between speech and other forms of action is narrower than in the radicalism of the Thirties and Forties, or even that of the Sixties.  
When many American subversives were “Red,” freedom of expression was invoked often, in part out of stark necessity; the same was true when the anti-establishment forces in the Sixties were brandishing picket signs, making edgy art and, to put it crudely, helping create the kind of world where sexual freedom, women’s rights and anti-racism are embraced by almost everyone in the West except conservative assholes. Artistic freedom was a big part of the package, and that’s where I come in as a late-Gen-X-er.
I was entering adolescence around the time rap was breaking out beyond African-American communities into places like my hometown of Vancouver (my political consciousness basically began with Public Enemy). The 80s and early 90s were a time of intense controversy surrounding the arts in America, from Twisted Sister to Robert Mapplethorpe and—climactically, as I remember it—rap music. When 2 Live Crew and other artists were under fire for their verbal content, many, many liberals, progressives and leftists stood up for them. The misogynistic and violent lyrics were defended along with the political subversion, all under the banner of “freedom of speech”; that phrase became, and remains, dear to my heart. I’m to the left of liberals on almost every issue; the biggest exception to my differences with them is their old-fashioned belief in a wide latitude for discourse, including a lot of the hateful stuff. I don’t believe in unfettered freedom of expression, and I don’t imagine that anyone—except maybe the silliest libertarian—does. I believe in limits to discourse and its avenues of expression, but a lot less of them than most leftists seem to these days, and when it comes to my beloved hip-hop, it’s: Keep your damn hands off, whether they be right-wing or left-wing ones.
So there are a lot of reasons why, in the opposition Bodied sets up between “PC” culture and the most obscene aspects of battle rap (those are pretty much the only ones that are shown), I'll take the side of Adam’s “Just 'cause you look like Kim Jong-un don’t mean you’re ill, son” over one of his campus attackers’ picket signs: “INTOLERANCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.”
The racist lyrics above are addressed to a Korean-American opponent (Prospek, played by another real-life battler, Dumbfoundead). Adam never race-baits Behn Grymm, and there are no anti-black dis lyrics in the movie except from a wack MC named “White Racist” in the credits and played by Canadian battler Pat Stay. The movie starts with the strong hint that black and white identities will clash, but the critique of Adam as a rapper doesn’t, in the end, have that much to do with overt racism—real or pretend—from or against any black person. 
Kahn and Larsen have, of course, every right to use battle rap as a counterpoint to campus “political correctness," but they do so by distorting the sport. They downplay the African-American foundations of hip-hop, including its battle ethos, which is said to have arisen largely from a single rap performance at the Harlem World club in 1981, when Kool Moe Dee perpetrated the first big rap dis and helped to create an ethic of competition that defined American rap until hardcore lyricism reached its peak and then plummeted, leaving us with a situation in which skill-deprived, downer-addled mumblers dominate and battle rap is something like an oasis in the desert. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody complains that
[T]he movie treats [battle rap] from the outside, with no connection whatsoever to any particular culture. Certainly, it’s clearly a part of black American culture—most of the participants are black—but the movie doesn’t deploy even a footnote of Adam’s earnest academicism to illuminate the sociology and history of the art.
—and it’s just that neglect that leads the film to dance around the issue it at first pretends to confront head-on: the electric relationship between black rappers and white fans, particularly those fans who go on to become rappers themselves.  
In North America, there are two dominant battle leagues, each with a sort of group style. There’s the largely African-American Ultimate Rap League (Smack-URL) and the Toronto-based, more multiracial King of the Dot (KOTD) League. It’s the latter league’s style that the filmmakers try to duplicate; the opening battle between Grymm and X-Tract (battler Big T) is the only real Smack-URL-style battle in the film. Smack-URL is, to a large degree, “gangsta rap” in battle form—the main lyrical ingredient is the threat of violence.
KOTD style, exemplified in the film by Prospek, Megaton (Lebanese-American battler Dizaster) and Adam himself, is different—more personalized, and, in a way, nastier. It goes for “angles” (single lines of attack across a body of rhymes) and “personals” (attacks targeted toward the opponent as a unique individual) more than Smack-URL; these play into the identity-politics aspect of Bodied. Larsen—a.k.a. Kid Twist—is one of the original KOTD rappers, and he and Kahn want to explore the world of campus privilege more than that of black culture, so they frame Adam’s gain-the-world/lose-the-soul quasi-triumph through a KOTD lens; some of the best black rappers in the sport get sidelined in favor of jokes about slanted eyes and Kim Jong-un.  
Personals are what wins Adam his battle against his mentor Grymm, a Smack-URL-style rapper who claims to disdain them. Adam digs into his opponent’s private life in a brutal way, and wins the battle by doing it. He loses Grymm’s respect, and that seems to cement the theme of exploitation. But Grymm, going against his previous claim, uses them in the battle as well. Adam’s sin is to get too nasty—offensiveness in battle rap, as in musical rap, exists on a spectrum. That’s the part of Bodied I like most, to the extent that it’s coherently expressed: the notion, which we seem to be in danger of losing, that offensiveness is often a matter of degree, as opposed to a binary of decency vs. outrage-worthy infraction.
The stress on race-free personals, however, also works as a dodge. When Adam first starts talking to Grymm, his future mentor tells him that, as a white man, he’s looking for a “nigga pass”—that means a pass to say “nigga,” not as an insult, but the way blacks use it, i.e. neutrally. This is where the filmmakers gesture towards really dangerous territory, but they soon duck out on it. If they really wanted to explore the issue of white rappers vs. black ones in a racially—rather than “personal”-ly—charged way, they could have gone with one of the white rappers they have portray wack MCs and then promptly drop: Charron, who plays the goof against whom Adam first shows his rap ability.
There are parallels between the fictional Adam and the real Charron—the main one is that they’re both awkward, geeky whites with bad voices for rap—and the filmmakers draw on a few of them explicitly. There’s racial tension, both real and manufactured, in Charron’s career: he’s pretty much undefeated against black (i.e. Smack-URL) rappers, and he’s christened himself the “Smack Killer.” (“When you say ‘Smack Killer’ you really mean ‘Black Killer,’” Dizaster has said in a dis to him.) Faced with his most (physically) fearsome opponent, a gangbanging Smack-URL rapper named Shotgun Suge, he’s the victim of a gestural physical assault (a “pocket tap”) and lyrics like these:
I leave him there, waitin’ to get picked all up
They like, “Suge, why you pickin’ on this white boy?” Y’all musta forgot these          crackers picked on us!
Slave ships they ran in on us, slave trade they handed us up
We ain’t land on Plymouth Rock, motherfucker— 
—at which point Suge stops, knowing the black crowd will complete the line: “Plymouth Rock landed on us!” That’s great stuff, if you ask me (a white boy, for the record), but Charron wins the battle—he “bodies” Suge—with lines like these: “You wanna bully a cracker, you thought you were cool?/This is Columbine—a white boy’s takin’ a Shotgun to school.” That rhyme in particular rocks the crowd, and the white geek solidifies his win by mocking himself as such in front of his black audience:
What you know about people laughing when you say you rap, so you have to lie?
What you know about havin’ to meet your girlfriend—online?
What you know about hearing the party starts at seven, and you show up—on time?
What you know about people pushing your books, and you're gettin' bullied by the kids in the hall?
What you know about your girlfriend dumpin' you for a black dude 'cause your dick was too small?
“That’s real cracker shit,” he says in between the cheers and laughter, and he’s loved for it. Charron has done great with black crowds; the racial animosity in battle rap seems to be a matter of the stage, and even there, it’s usually not real. Bodied is equivocal about this; there’s a lot of confused talk about “cultural appropriation,” and one quick, jokey portend of anti-black racist rhymes from Adam, but racial tension—and, relatedly, battle rap’s black background—take a back seat to concerns about personals and campus politics.
Kahn and Larsen exaggerate the offstage animosity in battle culture. One telling thing about the movie is the small number of handshakes and physical embraces at the end of the battles. I counted just one, and it comes after an exceptional moment of solidarity: Prospek and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) exchange props after a battle in which they choose to mock their own identities rather than each others’. Megaton holds Adam’s hand up in salute, but only after hitting him in the face. (Adam keeps on rapping after the blow—another clear reference to Charron, who did the same thing in real life!) In real-life battle rap, on the occasions when offstage beef exists it’s almost always settled with the battles, and handshakes and hugs are the rule: almost every battle ends with one or the other. They’re signs that the vitriol and the insults were for show: No offense, bro. It’s all good. The supreme example of this is a recent one, from Pat Stay’s battle with the MTF trans rapper No Shame. After throwing lines like “You’re not a woman, it’s called gender dysphoria/And I never lose a fight to a bitch anyway, there’s a gender dis for ya” at her, Pat recants his hateful slurs; his rhymes end with:
But honestly? I’ve got a whole lotta fuckin’ respect for you
As a mother, as a woman, just a human being in general
I know tonight I probably ruffled some feathers but fuck it, whatever
'Cause this is the type of shit that brings everybody together. 
The battle is over, and the opponents come together in a solid hug.
So could battle rap bring people together, as hip-hop culture in general has done to a massive extent? I doubt it. Maybe it could have, in a different time—before today’s iteration of “political correctness” and our Internet-fueled politics of perpetual outrage (on both the right and the left). In any event, the makers of Bodied don’t seem optimistic about the prospect. The film is all about strife, and it climaxes in the brutal division of Adam from his girlfriend, his school and his mentor. The irony is that these splits are part of the process that sees him come into his own as a white battle rapper. It’s a cynical conclusion entirely in keeping with contemporary American fiction films; the antihero meets with success even as he’s shamed.
At the end of the day, though, even the movie’s shaming of Adam is fudged. After Grymm walks away from him in disgust, both Smack White, the face of URL, and Organik, the face of KOTD, walk by and congratulate Adam on his brutal performance. Is that supposed to count for acclaim, and if not, how much is Bodied supposed to be sending up? Does it include the real-life public faces of North American battle rap, or did Kahn and Larsen just want to have as many real-life cameos as they could get for their movie?
I doubt that’s the case. My guess is they’ve just bitten off more than they can chew. They want to celebrate and publicize the sport while also satirizing it. They want to address black-white relations, but only—despite the early promise—so far. Above all, like most mainstream filmmakers, they want to give us a damn good show—and for my money, they do.
Almost none of the reviewers I’ve read on Bodied evince much prior knowledge of battle rap or interest in pursuing it outside of the film, although a lot of them seem to be pretty familiar with musical rap. If disgust is one reason for their lack of interest, I’d have to wonder why. The sport, as form, is a difference in kind; but in terms of offensiveness, it’s surely a difference of degree—if that, even. Its artists mean their words, if anything, less than Ice Cube, Biggie Smalls, Odd Future or Eminem—one of this film’s producers—do or did. Maybe, in the end, the movie is just a showcase for button-pushing and virtuosity. If so, it’s less straightforward about that than the real-life battlers it casts.
Fantastic read; this articulated thoughts and feelings I had about the film/its themes perfectly.
I'm not so interested in watching this film, but the breakdown of the topic here was a good read.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features