Every generation gets the Eminem battle-rap movie it deserves. In 2002, the Em-starring biopic 8 Mile—loosely based on his rise in the mid-’90s Detroit battle scene—introduced rhyming as blood sport to mainstream audiences. (And also, to some, the idea of a great white rapper.) Friday, the Em-produced black comedy Bodied, in which a woke grad student transforms into a vulgar battle rapper, opens in theaters in select cities. (Beginning November 28, it will stream exclusively on YouTube Premium.)
The mechanics of a rap battle haven’t changed much in the past 16 years: Two combatants face off to brutally insult each other in verse, with crowd approval determining the winner. Both 8 Mile and Bodied follow white outsiders who successfully infiltrate this hostile arena, where racial epithets and antigay taunts are par for course. The difference between the two films’ depictions of battle rap is the context. For Eminem’s B-Rabbit in 8 Mile, mano-a-mano rap competitions are extensions of fierce rivalries in the Detroit streets. Battling provides a means to an end: respect in his hood and a potential stepping stone to a real rap career. But for Bodied protagonist Adam Merkin, the world of rap battling is itself the end. Rather than serving as a proxy for the streets or a platform for stardom, it is a closed-off ecosystem wherein everybody is an outcast. So, while 8 Mile is ultimately a film about B-Rabbit’s quest for assimilation, Bodied is a movie about Adam’s anti-assimilation; the freedom he seeks in battle rap is from the shackles of his politically correct university life. In 2018, the rap battleground is the last remaining bastion of unencumbered language.
Or, at least, that is the vision of 46-year-old Bodied director Joseph Khan, who made his name helming music videos for the giant pop stars (Em, Britney, J.Lo, Gaga, Taylor) of the past two decades. Khan, a self-described “contextual free-speech absolutist”—he thinks Megyn Kelly shouldn’t have been fired, even if her blackface comments were wrong—is a longtime fan of battle rap. “I thought that it would be an interesting way to interface with the world today,” he says, “because it’s such a confrontational, offensive sport, where people say things that you just cannot say anymore in 2018.” In fact, the spirit of battle rap, if not the uncensored language, has been mainstreamed on good-natured cable programming like MTV’s Wild ’N Out, TBS’s Drop the Mic, and Comedy Central’s Roast Battle. All of these shows attempt to trade on the vicarious feeling of release one gets from watching people verbally abuse each other. But, says Khan, “If there’s no pain involved, it’s like saying a bunch of people slapping each other for fun is boxing.”
Authentic battle rap, on the other hand, is designed to pierce the skin. Written by longtime battler Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen, Bodied presents a fictionalized version of a real-life subculture that has its own governing bodies (see: King of the Dot) and superstars, many of whom—including Dumbfoundead, Dizaster, Hollow Da Don, and Loaded Lux—appear in the movie. At the start of the film, Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) attends a battle event to interview his hero, Behn Grym (Jackie Long), for his master’s thesis on “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-word in Battle Rap.” When Behn later encourages Adam to participate in an impromptu parking-lot battle with a random challenger, Adam discovers he enjoys the rush—not only from destroying an opponent in rhyme, but also from the crowd reaction to his performance.
The “anything goes” cauldron of battle rap and its colorful set of profane characters prove to be an intoxicating escape. In his regular life, Adam is the woke millennial personified. He attends UC Berkeley, where his father (Anthony Michael Hall) is a poetry professor; his girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), is a feminist vegan; and his peers are a coterie of young liberals who assiduously police each other’s language. As Adam immerses himself in the battle world, he learns that the more offensive and hurtful his speech—most of which, if said aloud or tweeted, might cause someone to be “canceled” in today’s society—the better his chances are of winning a duel. So, the same words that cause him to be ostracized at Berkeley turn him into a star on the rap battleground. Bodied is thus a self-aware satire that presents battle rap as an antidote to the encroachment of campus outrage culture and identity politics.
“Here’s the hypocrisy of woke culture,” says the director, Khan. “It tries to represent a type of human being that doesn’t exist—a perfectly rational, perfectly fair, perfectly non-racist, perfectly open person that doesn’t think in stereotypes.” In Khan’s view, battle rap forces people to confront the uncomfortable reality that all human beings are prone to stereotyping. But instead of disavowing the negative feelings that inevitably arise about other people, battle rappers lean further into them. “If you think about the way that it deals with the honesty of stereotypes, it can only come from a place where you’re actually having different cultures interfacing with each other,” Khan says. The veteran battle rapper Dumbfoundead, who plays Prospek in the film, agrees: “The stereotypes aren’t coming from a vicious place, they’re there already—people just don’t say them,” he says. “In this arena, where people don’t hold back anything, that’s the material.”
In Bodied, Adam is eventually forced to wrestle with whether he can reconcile his own belief system and the vitriol of battle rap. There are, of course, a plethora of race-related punch lines. Adam to an Arab competitor: “You’re not a suicide bomber just ’cause you have the eyebrows of an Angry Bird.” Adam to an Asian opponent: “I’ll kill your supporters too, for sleeping—that’s Korean fan death.” But the best scenes are when Adam’s battle-rap id seeps into his everyday life. Surrounded by his morally haughty classmates at a dinner party, Adam conjures insults in his mind to tear them down, one by one. When confronted about his secret rap life by his professor father and the black, female dean of his university, Adam fights back—aloud this time—in caustic verse. What if, one imagines, the whole world were a rap battleground?
If the positive response to Bodied on the festival circuit is any indication—it racked up audience awards in Toronto and Austin—maybe there is something to Khan’s belief that people are ready to honestly discourse with different cultures: “It’s the only way that you can actually have the opportunity to laugh about it as opposed to kill each other,” Khan says, before launching into a monologue about how the Chinese Communist Revolution was “essentially an attempt to cleanse bad ideas from the public sphere.”
The true test of Kahn’s theory might be in a different battle-rap movie altogether. “I’m a lefty, but there’s a point at which it seems like we don’t really value the idea of free speech,” he says. “The only people talking up the term now are on the right.” So, instead of a woke white liberal gone rogue, what if the main character were an alt-right white guy with an affinity for rhyming who took over the rap battleground? (Think Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist” video, but more fraught and less pat.) Where would we draw the line between “anything goes” and actual hate speech? And would the protagonist eventually find understanding through dialogue with people from different backgrounds, or would he remain bigoted despite having a safe space to air his most offensive opinions? We’ll probably never know. “Everybody wants to stay in their own echo chambers,” Khan says.
Bodied is an entertaining foray into a culture where no speech is taboo, but it doesn’t quite trust its audience enough to go that far. Maybe that’ll be the battle-rap movie for the next generation.