If, like me, your only exposure to battle rap has been 8 Mile or James Corden’s Drop the Mic, Bodied has you covered. If battle rap is your life, I can only imagine Bodied is for you what Rounders is to poker players or Serpico is to cops.
Adam (Calum Worthy) is doing a thesis on battle rap but when he’s challenged at a show, he discovers he has the skills to drop bars. As he rises in the underground world of battle rap, Adam estranges his girlfriend Maya (Tori Uphold) but gains an ally in Behn Grym (Jackie Long), Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park), Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) and Che Corleone (Walter Perez).
If this description leaves you worried that Bodied is yet another movie about a multi-cultural world seen through the eyes of a white dude, rest assured Joseph Kahn is not going to make that movie. He chose Adam as the protagonist for a reason that I won’t fully spoil, but you see hints of the theme throughout the film. Every rapper says anything is fair game in battle rap, so Adam gets comfortable trading racist barbs under the umbrella of “it’s just battle rap.” But every time he plays the “just battle rap” card, the audience can see what the Asian, African American and female battle rappers really think of him.
This is a universal theme beyond the world of battle rap. Lots of artists claim they don’t actually believe the things they write about or portray, but can they be completely innocent when they still had the mindset to create these abhorrent subjects? Actors may be artists a tad more removed than writers and directors who put the words in their mouths, and to some extent racism and oppression still needs to be portrayed lest it be forgotten and repeated. In any context, there are consequences for what you say, whether in the James Baldwin context or battle rap. These are the complicated themes Bodied explores through a fun, energetic battle rap movie.
Bodied does a good job explaining the rules of battle rap to laypeople, the structure and format of bars, how battles are judged when there are no judges, et. al. When the rappers reference movies, that’s a way in for me, but there are far more sophisticated rhymes that elevate the format too.
If you’re already a battle rap aficionado, Bodied has plenty of deep cut references and appearances by notable performers. It gets into the nitty gritty of the culture too. There are some great scenes where Prospek and Devine talk shop and realize they can never avoid hearing the Asian and female slurs in their battles, but they find a brilliant way later in the movie to take them back. There are also distinctions between stupid racist stereotypes and actual history of oppression.
Technically, Kahn brings the energy of Detention and his music videos to Bodied. Subtle visual effects enhance wordplay and dramatize the split-second decisions freestylers must make. Most impressive is the sound mix. With all the layers of beats, crowds and sound effects overlapping, all the rap is clear which is the most important dialogue to hear.
Worthy and Uphold nail the perpetual state of anxiety in which young people seem to be (Adam says he’s actually diagnosed). The characters’ stress is further exacerbated by the unfamiliar environment. Yet Worthy’s angry face is vicious in battle rap. Long is the heart and soul of the movie. Every battle rapper is memorable in their characters.
It would be easy, and probably very commercial, to make a movie about an underdog rising in the world of battle rap. It’s been done before but a good formula bears repeating. Bodied is the Whiplash of battle rap movies. It’s got that thrilling structure but it’s also interested in asking what are the costs of success.