In 1992, Woody Harrelson proved to American audiences that “White Men [Can] Jump.” Seven years later, a flaxen imp from Detroit — whose namesake is the phonetic spelling of a chocolate candy — showed us that white men can become hip-hop stars by rhyming “beer” with “queer” in a song about killing his baby mama. But that was the ’90s and in millennial years, that’s a lifetime ago. How times have changed!
Black Lives now Matter and balding baby boomers can no longer safely masturbate before unwilling observers — but rest assured that some things never change. White nationalism is alive and well, along with its hooded brothers white mediocrity and white fragility — the three points of that classic drinking game, the Devil’s Triangle! Not familiar? You drink (beer) every time you (beer) embody (beer) one of those points (beer). Then you black out and sexually assault a woman or five before becoming a Supreme Court Justice (beer). That may be neither here nor there in the oddly conservative, static world of white-boy-in-the-hood films where misogyny and racism are overlords to curry favor with rather than scraps to be discarded, but I give political context in order to elucidate the question at hand: Now that we’ve seen that white people can, in fact, rap (Eminem), jump (Woody Harrelson) and dance (Justin Timberlake) — the question is no longer one of ability, but responsibility. Should white people rap?
Enter “Bodied,” the story of a geeky ginger grad-student-cum-rap-battler named Adam (played by ex-Disney star Calum Worthy). The movie begins at the periphery of a battle in Oakland where he delivers one of his frantically pedantic monologues about the philology of rap to his girlfriend, who is also a grad student yet somehow unfamiliar with homonyms, puns and internal rhyme. Good thing the pale-faced Adam is around to mansplain — and legitimize — rap, else the world might never recognize its literary complexity. “Bodied” unwittingly takes a tip from traditional slave narratives which open with a white voice giving testimony to the veracity of the slave’s story, as if to say that in the white — I mean right — hands, rap can be just as intellectual as Shakespearean verse.
Adam then chases down battle champion Behn Grymm (played by Jackie Long), who mercifully answers a series of questions for Adam’s thesis on “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-Word in Battle Rap.” Right. Grymm then throws Adam into a last-minute battle with another white rapper. Adam wins, and so begins his journey: He wins a local battle. He picks up a crew of ragtag underdog battlers. He goes head-to-head with his mentor. Do I need to tell you what happens next?
Predictable plot aside, “Bodied” is foremost a movie which tries to push a political agenda. Director Joseph Kahn, a Korean-American, describes his work as a statement “against p.c. culture” and true to form, it’s filled to the brim with all the low-hanging fruit of offense culture — feminism is lame, vegetarianism is dumb, otherness is a farce and Asians who don’t own their harmful stereotypes are wusses. Whew, hot take! You do you, but I remain unconvinced that goading people into getting offended is a valid form of cultural critique. While “Bodied” tries to be a smart, punchy satire in the vein of “Get Out,” it fails to answer the very questions it so blatantly set out to address: Is white use of the n-word ever acceptable? Is the performance of virulent misogyny okay as long as everyone self-identifies as woke? If a white man doesn’t mansplain rap, does it even exist at all? Characters launch into meandering diatribes about the ethics of language but end up right where they started, closing their hermetically sealed loops of prejudice like limericks.
This isn’t to say that “Bodied” doesn’t have its upsides. It’s entertaining — at times hilarious — thanks to Worthy, a bonafide star who delivers violent bars (units of rap, we’re told) with a swagger you’d never think possible from a gawky redhead. Jackie Long as Grymm gives Denzel a run for his money. Their performances alone carry the movie, which is filled with dizzying zooms, pans and neon video game effects which read more “Street Fighter” than rap battler — which is no surprise given that Kahn is one of the biggest music video directors in the industry, having worked with everyone from DMX to Maroon 5 to Taylor Swift (yes, he’s responsible for “Wildest Dreams,” that colonialist disaster). I had the dubious pleasure of meeting him when a press coordinator introduced us before the movie. Over the din of the pinball machines at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco, I’d barely uttered a hello before Kahn blew a gasket over the fact that I dared to speak to him before seeing the movie. “Come on!” he whined, “You’re Asian! Come prepared!! Do your homework!” He threw up his hands, exasperated, “You’re Asian!!!”
Indeed I am, Joseph Kahn! And like many other Asians, I don’t always do my homework, especially not when thrown into an impromptu pre-screening meet & greet with a group of rap battlers, a young man I kept mistaking for Tilda Swinton and a middle-aged Asian man in a trucker hat and skinny jeans. I forgive you because you directed the seminal ’90s video “The Boy is Mine” by Brandy & Monica, but tell me, who hurt you? Also, can somebody explain to me why rap battlers need to mime their bars so hard that it looks like they’re communicating in ASL with a helicopter crew? Tweet me @roymorbidson.
Contact Adrienne Chung at akchung ‘at’ stanford.edu.