Bodied (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Aggressive and provocative

Watching “Bodied” was one of the most interesting experiences I had during this year. While I frequently cringed at its no-hold-barred battle rap scenes full of expletives to shock and jolt us, I observed them with considerable fascination, and I came to admire its bold attempt to tackle its tricky subjects, though it is not always as successful as intended.

The story of the movie is mainly told through Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), a white graduate studying in University of California, Berkeley. Because the subject of his master thesis is a certain common expletive in rap music I cannot possibly write here (hint: it begins with N), he goes to a battle rap match held in Oakland along with his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), and he surely gets what he wants from an intense match between two black rappers. While Maya is understandably alarmed and repelled by numerous expletives casually used during this match, Adam cannot help but enthralled by what is exchanged between these two black rappers, and he even tries to approach to one of them shortly after the match.

That black rapper in question is called Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), and he does not give much damn about Adam at first, but then there comes an unexpected moment when they come across a white rapper eager to impress Grymm. When Grymm has Adam have an impromptu match with that white rapper, Adam is reluctant at first, but, what do you know, he surprises everyone including himself with his rough but effective rap, and that certainly impresses Grymm, who decides to be a mentor/guide figure for Adam.

While quite excited about this opportunity, Adam is not so sure about whether he can do battle rap well, and he does not get much support from others around him. His adviser professor, who is also his father incidentally, is not so enthusiastic about Adam’s master thesis subject, and neither are Maya and his several friends, who have an amusing discussion with him on rap and race at one point.

During his first battle rap match, Adam faces a Korean American rapper called Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park). Adam surely flinches at first as Prospek hurls many insults and expletives at him, but then he retaliates hard against Prospek with a rap full of specific racist insults, which actually impress Prospek (“At least you knew I was Korean. As far as I’m concerned, that’s culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.”)

While hanging around more with Grymm, Prospek, and other rappers including Che Corleone (Walter Perez) and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai), Adam finds himself assimilating more and more from the competitive world of battle rap, which is filled with various figures such as Megaton (Dizaster), a big, intimidating rapper who does not even refrain himself from physical attacks at times. When Adam and his fellow rappers go to a party held at Megaton’s home later in the story, they see Megaton holding a big gun in his hand, and they certainly become nervous while trying to enjoy the party along with others.

As advancing further through several battle rap matches, Adam becomes more confident and enthusiastic than before, but, not so surprisingly, he soon gets himself into serious personal troubles. During one painfully funny moment, he tries to demonstrate a bit of his talent to Maya, but he only finds himself insulting her inadvertently, and he is even kicked out of her residence as a consequence. In addition, many students in UC Berkeley become quite angry after watching a video clip showing one of his battle rap matches, and he is accordingly thrown into more confusion and desperation.

While not judging its hero’s apparent cultural appropriation much, the screenplay by Alex Larsen, which is based on the story written by him and director Joseph Khan, pushes its hero further into more provocative moments, which are alternatively disturbing and compelling to say the least. During what can be regarded as the dramatic highpoint of the movie, Adam lets himself cross a certain boundary just because he is allowed to say anything during battle rap match, and we can clearly sense how much his insulting rap hurts and devastates his opponent, who must keep himself cool and calm in front of many audiences no matter how much he feels angry and humiliated.

Although the movie unfortunately falters after that powerful moment and its final scene feels rather contrived, the movie still grips our attention with enough energy and style thanks to Khan’s competent direction, and he also draws a number of good performances from his main cast members. While Calum Worthy and Jackie Long are believable in the relationship development between their contrasting characters, Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, and Dizaster are also fine in their respective supporting roles, and Rory Uphold manages to leave some impression despite her thankless role.

On the whole, “Bodied”, which won the People’s Choice Award for the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival in last year, is not comfortable to watch at all, but it is a riveting and thought-provoking piece of work nonetheless, so I recommend it with some caution. This is a tough stuff indeed, but it is worthwhile to watch and talk about at least.

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