Film and TV

Hip-Hop Satire Bodied Hits Hard Until It Goes All Serious in the End

Calum Worthy (right) plays grad student Adam Merkin, who gets hooked on battle-rap competitions after consulting with a master named Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in director Joseph Kahn's Bodied.
Calum Worthy (right) plays grad student Adam Merkin, who gets hooked on battle-rap competitions after consulting with a master named Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in director Joseph Kahn's Bodied. Courtesy of YouTube Originals and Neon
For the first hour, I understand the rapturous feedback  — standing ovations and everything! — that Bodied won when it played the Toronto and Fantastic Fest film festivals a year ago. Right from the jump, we’re treated to a hilarious depiction of battle-rap culture that’s both intensely verbose and hysterically absurd. We first see our protagonist, grad student Adam Merkin (American Vandal’s Calum Worthy), at a grimy rap battle, trying — and failing — to teach his pedantic girlfriend (Rory Uphold) how to overlook the misogyny, violence and homophobia these rappers spew and appreciate it for the wordy, witty spectacle it is.

Since he’s writing a thesis paper on the use of the N-word in battle rap, he goes to a master, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), for research. For some reason, Grymm ropes Merkin into an impromptu rap battle (Merkin’s opponent’s name: Billy Pistolz) and, after discovering how good he is at incisive wordplay, gets immediately hooked on the competitions.

Lord only knew there was so much to make fun of in rap culture, which Bodied does with proudly redonkulous fervor. Director Joseph Kahn (who cowrote the script with actual battle rapper Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen), a man who directed many a hip-hop video in his time, knows exactly what cliches and tropes need to be mocked. They range from the shady promoters (Simon Rex and Andy Milonakis provide cameos) to the archetypes of competitors (The comedian! The choke artist! The racist?) who stink up the scene.

It’s such fun watching this profane silliness unfold that it pissed me off when Bodied took a sharp turn in the second half. While the movie does address white people’s thorny relationship with rap and cultural appropriation, it demonstrates how delicate satirizing that can be when it gets kind of serious near the end — a long, long end — and suggests that being the best at battle rap can also mean being the worst. Telling the story of Merkin’s journey in his adopted culture, Bodied is basically 8 Mile for those who are still pissed off that Eminem walked away as The Great White Hope. (Considering that Eminem also serves as a producer, I wouldn’t be surprised if that self-flagellating rap god put his name on the credits for that very reason.)

Bodied doesn’t provide easy answers. Then again, you may find yourself wondering which questions it’s bringing up. Is it saying that battle rap, with it’s to-the-bone verbal jabs and crude, un-PC putdowns, is really just a sideshow and not a true gauge of an MC’s talents? Or is it saying that white people who are into rap will never truly understand it because they’re too busy trying (or demanding) to be down?

For an outrageous movie about the rap world, Bodied sure fucked up my day.
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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey