8 Mile came out in 2002 and thanks to repeat cable viewings has become something of a guilty pleasure for me since then. (“This guy’s a gangster? his real name’s Clarence.”) Over the years I admit I never thought much about the implications of a movie where a white guy conquers the battle rap scene. That was just the Eminem story, right? It helped that the movie told us that the particular white kid was actually born and bred in the inner city (he wasn’t a tourist), and the fact that it was kind of true (I think?) and not just some fake backstory cooked up by a record label (a la Snow or Vanilla Ice) seemed to make it okay.
But what if the white kid had been a tourist? What if we watched it, deep down wanting the bourgeois white kid to succeed, but also had to acknowledge the inherent fucked-upness of rooting for the privileged kid to beat the disenfranchised at the game they invented? What if we had our own vicarious thrill at the white hero saying “bitch” and “faggot” in his raps rubbed in our faces?
That’s Joseph Kahn’s Bodied in a nutshell (produced by Eminem himself), which is smart as hell but the furthest thing you can imagine from an art movie or a thinkpiece. Kahn (who was born in Korea and whose legal name is Ahn Jun-hee) normally directs commercials and music videos (for everyone from the Geto Boys to U2), and it shows. Bodied is catchy, kitschy, and pop, with flashy editing, swooping graphics, with characters breaking the fourth wall and actors playing overtly to type. It’s the best kind of smart, the kind of smart that plays dumb to be smart, that you don’t have to be especially smart to enjoy.
Our hero is Adam Merkin (yes, “merkin”), played by Calum Worthy, a freckly ginger and basically the beau ideal of a dork-ass Opie-looking whiteboy. In the first scene, Adam live-annotates a rap battle between “Behn Grymm” (Jackie Long) and some soon-to-be-vanquished rap foe. Adam translates terms like “bars” and “name flip” for his disapproving, horn-rimmed girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), who can’t stand all the proud crassness and rampant misogyny. God, isn’t she such a drag?
Adam is rap battle freak, who’s trying to interview Grymm for his graduate thesis in English, about the different meanings of the N-word in battle rap. “Oh, so you wanna say nigga, huh?” Grymm asks a bewildered Adam. “White dudes never ask about the N-word unless they wanna say it.”
Bodied never lets its protagonist off easily, but neither does it make him a scapegoat. That we can see ourselves in a flawed character like Adam means we have to see ourselves — no easy outs.
Behn throws Adam into his first rap battle against Adam’s will, but Adam rises to the occasion, becomes Behn’s protege, and surprise surprise, he turns out to be some kind of prodigy. That is, whenever he can let go of the white guilt and self-censoring impulse that usually keeps him from cutting down foes with his most racist diss rhymes. It’s significant that Adam’s breakout battle is with a white dude — Adam goes ham right away because there’s no PC rule against dissing white dudes. When his first real opponent — Prospek, played by Jonathan Park — is Korean, Adam chokes. That is, until he indulges all his worst impulses, like jokes about math and karate and eating dogs and bad driving and slanted eyes (“when you look at iPad it looks like IMAX”).
After that, the audience loves him. Even Prospek gives him props after the battle, offering him that most coveted of white privileges — the hood pass (…sort of). It’s like he’s found the ultimate loophole, this upside-down world where the cool minorities you always wanted to be down with will accept you so long as you can verbalize your crudest, most racist thoughts about them (…or so it seems at first).
Everything seems to be going great, except the more success Adam has in the world of rap battles, the less success he seems to have in the outside (mostly white) world, where he’s a student at Berkeley. Maya, for instance, hasn’t changed her mind about battle rap’s inherent violence, racism and misogyny. She cuts him down for his privilege at a party, only to get cut down herself (by an Asian friend) who shames her for, as a white woman, daring to criticize an oppressed minority’s chosen form of self-expression. The film draws an obvious parallel. Competitive wokeness is just as adversarial as a rap battle (and a lot less fun).
There are some other choice disses of white intellectuals, some of which hit a little close to home. Adam has a Bernie sticker on his laptop and his girlfriend is a bellicose vegan. Berkeley students say things like “when we have full communism…” and “see, this is why we can’t have communism” when they diss Adam.
If it sounds like Bodied is about to turn into a centrist-baiting Jonathan Chait essay about snowflakes and safe spaces, that was my worry. But Kahn, and Bodied, are too smart for that. Kahn, who said he’d been involved with the battle rap scene since before he’d even heard of Eminem, clearly loves the form, and when Adam talks about how much more vibrant an artform battle rap is compared to “some middle-aged Canadian professor’s thousand-word poem that maybe 100 people will read,” it sounds like Kahn’s genuine sentiment. Neither, though, is Kahn positing a better world if only all races and creeds could come together and roast the shit out of each other with the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, ablist, etc. rhetoric we can think of.
Adam can have a beer with Behn and Prospek after saying horrible things about them, but he can’t unsay them, and they’ll never forget it. Deeds outweigh words, but words aren’t nothing. And what to make of Adam’s cell phone ring (a frog ribbit)? Is it a Pepe reference? Is Kahn equating Adam to the alt-right? Or is he just messing with us, as a way to illustrate the ambiguity of dog whistles?
The strength of Bodied is that while it’s vaguely against public shaming and word policing and self-righteous privilege checking, at its core it explores the limits of free speech, it doesn’t pretend to know them. A storyteller who asks is frequently more successful than the one who tells. On top of that, it’s just a lot of fun. Kahn shoots it like a flashy commercial and keeps 8 Mile’s uplifting Rocky story structure largely intact. It’s also essentially a musical, with the raps written by Kid Twist (a Canadian battle rapper and creative writing student at York University with a background that partly mirrors Adam’s) and battle rap legend Hollow Da Don, who dropped four brutal bars on Fantastic Fest programmer Evrim Ersoy after the premiere. (I would’ve assumed any honestly “off top” rhymes would pale in comparison to the scripted movie version, but they didn’t.)
Everything sounds better as a rhyme, and Bodied uses this phenomenon to cheat without shame. It works. When’s the last time you had a conversation about race, privilege, and political correctness that was actually fun?