Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Movie Review: Bodied

Bodied **** / *****
Directed by: Joseph Kahn.
Written by: Alex Larsen and Joseph Kahn.
Starring: Calum Worthy (Adam), Jackie Long (Behn Grymm), Rory Uphold (Maya), Jonathan Park (Prospek), Walter Perez (Che Corleone), Shoniqua Shandai (Devine Write), Charlamagne Tha God (Hunnid Gramz), Dizaster (Megaton), Debra Wilson (Dean Hampton), Anthony Michael Hall (Professor Merkin), Loaded Lux (Bluntz), Hollow Da Don (40 Mag), Simon Rex (Donnie Narco), Lisa Maley (Becky), Eddie Perino (Jon), Eric Allen Smith (Robert), Candice Renee (Jas), Andy Milonakis (Freddie Hustle), Daniel Rashid (MC Goggles), Vivian Lamolli (Bella Blackwoods), Big T (X-Trakt), Daylyt (Big Zee), Adam Ferrone (The Groom), Corey Charron (Billy Pistolz), Tony 'Madness' Gomez (Choke Artist), Pat Stay (White Racist).
Bodied is a film about a white grad student, Adam (Calum Worthy – so memorable in Season 1 of American Vandal) who is apparently writing his thesis on the “use of the n-word in battle rap” – who unsurprisingly gets drawn in to the world of battle rap to such an extent that he starts doing it himself. This is, of course, what he actually wanted – but he didn’t want to admit it to himself. It is a smart film about the questions it asks – and is an equal opportunity offender in that pretty much everyone in the film comes under its microscope at one point or another – and they’re all found to be hypocrites, although some worse than others. This is a film in love with language – who uses it very well – in ways that are clever and funny when you first hear the lines, but makes those laughs stick in your throat a second later when you realize what is said. The only thing that the movie really messes up is the ending – there is another version of this movie somewhere that could have – and definitely should have – been harder hitting in the end, implicating the audience, and everyone else. This movie doesn’t quite get there – but it gets way closer than you suspect it will.
We first meet Adam as he attends a rap battle with his girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold). Adam is entranced by the battle, but Maya is somewhat appalled – there is a lot of racism, homophobia and misogyny on display in the battle raps (she’s not wrong about that) and she wonders aloud how good of a person you could really be if you spend all your time thinking of ways to insult others (again, not wrong). Maya is an interesting character (at least until the movie abandons her about two-thirds of the way in), because on one level she is the killjoy every other movie would have her be, and on another, she is correct in what she says. The movie also has great fun with Maya, Adam and their group of friends, as they all try to prove just how woke and non-judgmental they are, using inclusive language to the point where it becomes meaningless.
But back to the battle rap. Adam idolizes Benh Grymm (Jackie Long) – a sort of legend in Bay Area battles, and looks to him to help him on his “thesis”. When Benh is approached outside the club by a white kid who wants to battle him – Benh steps aside, and tells Adam to take care of the kid for him – which he does. This leads to Adam getting an offer to actually battle rap – against a Korean American rapper, Prospek (Jonathan Park). Although Adam insists he isn’t going to stoop to racism – he finds that it’s easy to do so – and works for him. Prospek doesn’t seem to hold it against him either – the two becomes friends.
But Bodied is smart about its use of language – and the questions it raises. Prospek may not hold a grudge against Adam for his language, but he is tired of being hit with the Asian stuff every single battle. The same is true for Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai), a female battler, who knows what she’s going to get hit with before she steps into the ring. The movie recognizes question of white privilege, but also whether or not people who aren’t white should get a pass for racist language. What about sexist or homophobic language? Is there a difference between Adam, who will use some racist language but isn’t “really” racist and the white rapper later in the film who very clearly is racist and is using battle rap as an excuse to sling racial slurs?
The film doesn’t really have an answer to those questions – and perhaps that’s for the best. The questions are provocative in their own right, and thinking about them should be enough. I do think that the film pulls its punches in the end though – which is right when it needed to stand by its convictions the most. The ending is weak – and pretty much lets everyone off the hook. But right up until then, this was a challenging and provocative film – and one that will likely stick in your mind if you’re willing to go along with it, accept it on its terms, and role the ideas around in your mind. And you should definitely do that.

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