Bodied

BODIED MM D: Joseph Kahn, U.S. 121 minutes..


BODIED MM D: Joseph Kahn, U.S. 121 minutes. Sep 9, 1:45 pm, Scotiabank 4 Sep 14, 8:15, Scotiabank 1. Rating: NNN


Misogynist, racist and homophobic insults are the currency of life in freestyle battle rap, a strain of hip-hop in which two MCs face off with a series of improvised disses.

Nothing is too offensive, or is it? Turns out this genre has its own limits and that’s what director  Kahn (Detention) tests in Bodied, a thoughtful and often thrilling peek into the subculture that is ultimately undermined by one-dimensional characterizations it seeks to push back against.

Written by Toronto-born battle rapper Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen, this year’s Midnight Madness opener is very light on blood but heavy on trigger-warning verbal abuse.

It stars Victoria-born Calum Worthy as Adam, a white graduate student whose obsession with Oakland’s underground battle rap horrifies his uptight liberal girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). Adam’s journalistic inquiries eventually become a gateway into the scene when local star Beyn Grymm (Jackie Long) calls him out on his cultural tourism and becomes his mentor.

What follows is a satire of both identity politics and cultural appropriation, as Adam befriends a group of Bay Area battle rappers played by a mix of real-life rappers and actors, including Korean-American Prospek (Jonathan “Dumfoundead” Park) and the scene’s only female battler (Shoniqua Shandai).

Though Kahn has been known to push back against “political correctness” on Twitter, Bodied doesn’t attempt to justify any of the offensive rhetoric used in battle rap. Instead, it presents a diverse group of characters who accept the rules of the game yet nonetheless grapple with their chosen art form’s intense focus on their identities.

In one brilliant scene, Park and Shandai’s characters face off by roasting themselves with all the clichéd things people say about Asians and women. They must fight harder to reclaim the things everyone is allowed to say in their scene – and that becomes the fuel for their creativity.

Unfortunately, the film falls on its own sword in its rote view of Maya and Adam’s liberal friends. Similar to Justin Simien’s 2014 film Dear White People, these condescending portrayals (Preppy gay guys! White vegans with dreads!) only serve to make the filmmakers seem as pious as their detractors. Though Bodied’s crazed energy and its increasingly unsentimental and self-reflective tone somewhat offset its more typical aspects, the attempt at parodying Internet discourse is shallow and totally cornball.

Kahn, who is best known for music videos, is more effective in the rap scenes, which he frames like boxing matches with all manner of stylized camera angles and editing tricks used to immerse viewers in the action. Moreover, the flows and rhyme schemes are impressive (executive producer Eminem clearly ghostwrote a few lines), and Worthy holds his own surprisingly well against more practised MCs in the cast, such as Park.

Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, Bodied wants viewers to understand the highs (and lows) the characters feel in doing what they do, whether you morally co-sign or not. And like all good musicals, Bodied advances the bulk of the emotional drama in the battle scenes, which become less funny and more personal, painful and alienating as the film goes on.

See photos from the Bodied premiere here.

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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