Review: 'Bodied', Joseph Kahn's Rap Battle Comedy Takes On All Challengers

NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival

Sundance might want to watch out or they're liable to get a reputation. After Patti Cake$ spit fire all over the screen last year, the festival hosts Joseph Kahn's fierce battle rap comedy, Bodied, featuring another white boy rapper with the sick rhyme flow. Given that Eminem is on board as a producer, the rags to rap superiority tale should come as no surprise, nor should the film's antagonistic take on racial dynamics in the hip-hop world.

As a black man who grew up embedded deep within the rap culture, the questions Bodied poses are nothing new to me, and I chuckled listening to the mostly-white critics here at Sundance act as if they were. But I dig that Kahn, along with co-writer and legit battle rapper Kid Twist bring edge, phat rhymes, attitude, and a deep respect for the game that not everybody understands or gets to see.

Like a rap version of Rudy, this underdog story features scrawny, PhD literature student Adam (Calum Worthy), who slaughters his foes in the underground battle rap scene while working on a thesis about the use of the N-word in battle raps. If Eminem had no street knowledge he might look something like Adam, who drags his PC vegan girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) into what looks like the setting of Fight Club to witness his hero and reigning champ Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) destroy another opponent. "Just assume everything is a gun metaphor", he tells Maya who is confused and disturbed by the fuselage of racist, sexist, mysogenistic, fat shaming, slut shaming lyrics.

Grymm agrees to help Adam out with his thesis while constantly challenging him on the need for it in the first place, "It's because they really want to say nigga" is the usual rationale for discussion of the word's use by non-blacks. An impromptu parking lot challenge by a fellow white rapper finds Adam spittin' bars he never knew he had, much to Maya's chagrin. And just like that, Adam is the new hot battler, joining forces with Grymm and a United Nations of fellow rappers: Korean-born Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park),  Che Corleone (Walter Perez) from Ecuador and the afro-puffed black female rapper, Devine Wright (Shoniqua Shandai). "What is this, a Captain Planet reunion?" snipes one opposing rhymer.

The battle raps are the constant highlight, with Kahn's energetic camera whirling around the battlefield, weaving in and out of the hyped onlookers. A particularly devastating insult might be superimposed with powerful comic book letters, or emboldened with the visual rat-a-tat-tat of verbal gunfire. If the film is overlong at two hours, the matches themselves never grow old, and I found myself forgetting that they were fictional and not taped footages of actual fights.

But Kahn isn't interested in just the act of it; he recognizes that there is an art to battling. While Adam's whiteness is always his Achilles heel, race, gender, physical appearance, religion, they are all fair game and the trick is to tear down your opponent with style. Does saying the word nigga in a rap battle make it okay? Does saying such vile things to defeat your opponent make you a terrible person? The script is a little all over the map when trying to decide. Adam goes through a stretch where his take-no-prisoners lyrics, a combination of vicious wordplay and liberal politics, causes him to lose everything he holds dear. At some points it's tough to tell if he's the hero of this story or the goat, and I don't mean G.O.A.T. like LL Cool J.

Bodied is sure to offend just about everybody with its politically incorrect takes, but it holds particular venom for privileged white liberals who don't recognize their biases. To win, Adam has to embrace that part of himself, while someone like Maya says what sounds right without recognizing the content of her words. And that may be the ultimate answer to the question that dogs Adam. The vile, nasty words he destroys opponents with don't matter as much as who he is as a man. It's only when the verbal assaults get personal that a clash has gone too far.

Debuting to a raucous reception at last year's TIFF, Bodied was just picked up by YouTube and screened here at Sundance for a select group. I'm not sure the progressive white crowd in Park City was the right audience, but I'm more curious to see how it's received to a wider audience. Bodied can definitely get the crowd pumped like the world's best hype man, but it'll be interesting to see if it offends so many that nobody is left in the crowd to be moved.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5