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‘Bodied’ Director Joseph Kahn Talks With Us About His Film’s Unapologetic Commentary On ‘Woke Culture’

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It’s rare to see a send-up of college campuses or wokeness that doesn’t come from a regressive place, a place that says white people should be able to say whatever they want without consequences. Of all Bodied’s accomplishments (it hits select theaters on November 2nd and YouTube Premium on November 28th), perhaps its greatest feat is managing the relevant send-up without the regressive moral. What Bodied presupposes is, maybe there’s still some room for satire?

Bodied, directed by Grammy-winning music video director Joseph Kahn, isn’t specifically about college campuses, though it does draw a parallel between the two worlds inhabited by its protagonist, Adam. Played by freckly Calum Worthy — who seems to embody all the most hyperbolic white boy disses thrown at Eminem in 8 Mile — Adam is stuck between two worlds — the world of hyperwoke argumentative humanities majors he inhabits during the day as a graduate student studying English and poetry; and the world of deliberately offensive argumentative battle rappers he inhabits during the night.

Bodied takes place in a world where 8 Mile already exists, as director Joseph Kahn likes to say, and in some ways, it feels like a belated attempt to grapple with what it means for a white guy to be the hero of a battle rap movie (Eminem was also a producer on Bodied). But like 8 Mile, it’s also semi-autobiographical, in this case based on the life of its screenwriter, Alex Larsen, “a full-on, card carrying Marxist-Leninist wracked with white guilt” (according to Kahn) who moonlights as the battle rapper Kid Twist.

“[Alex] comes from the high-intelligentsia world,” Kahn says, “and he’s a walking contradiction from all of his liberal points of view. Because once he goes up on stage, he says the weirdest, craziest, most racist things.”

It would be the easy thing for Bodied to celebrate that as a feel-good story about the value of free speech, but Bodied isn’t dumb, it knows that a white guy boldly asserting his right to make race jokes in 2018 isn’t exactly a triumphant hero’s journey. Neither though does it entirely shame Adam for trying, or pretend that those jokes aren’t funny. Above all, it resists facile attempts to imprint on it a reductive ideology. Which makes it, according to Kahn, “dangerous.”

Bodied is Kid Twist’s story, but it’s also Kahn’s — an outsider, both racially and culturally, infiltrating the rap world. Born in Korea but without a Korean-sounding name (“the family name is Ahn, but my dad was in the US military, and he didn’t like doing things alphabetical. Like, you jump out of planes first, go into machine gun fire first. He put a ‘K’ in front of it to be in the middle of the alphabet. So before I was even born, it was changed to Kahn”), Kahn dropped out of NYU when he couldn’t afford it, and moved back to Houston, where he ended up making gangster rap videos.

“My first time really experiencing battle rap was in person,” Kahn says. “They would see the Asian guy standing there in a sea of African-Americans, and they’d stop the battle rap to make fun of me. And so [Bodied is] a living, breathing testament to my early days of filmmaking.”

I’d probably be the first one to call bullshit on a music video director in a cool hat and big eyeglass frames (like Kahn was wearing when I spoke to him at Bodied‘s PR office in LA) calling his movie “dangerous,” but the fact is, Kahn put up the money for Bodied himself, so sure was he that he wouldn’t be able to sell the idea to financiers. And history seems to have validated this assumption. Even after the movie was shot and in the can and was generating solid buzz on the festival circuit (I named it in my top 10 movies of the year last year after seeing it at Fantastic Fest), it sat for some time without a distributor before it was finally picked up by YouTube and Neon.

It seemed like a strange outcome for a movie that’s otherwise so broad and so poppy, so visually dynamic and so crowd pleasing. I’ve seen movies I walked out of sell for $10 million at festivals, and the contrast between those audiences and Bodied‘s is stark. It seems like a crowdpleaser. So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that distributors really were afraid of it.

“[When Bodied ends] what you’ve done is you’ve watched some racist jokes for two hours, laughed your ass off, and then feel bad about it,” Kahn says. “We got turned down by almost every film festival because of that.”

Bodied seems like a lot of fun for a supposedly feel-bad movie to me. “I think that the question is still out on whether or not the mainstream public will still accept this movie,” Kahn says.

We’ll begin to find out this week. Here’s the rest of my conversation with Kahn.

Neon/Youtube

So I wanted to ask about the ringtone. Was [Adam’s] ribbit ringtone, was that a reference to Pepe frog, or anything like that?

Maybe.

Maybe? Okay. Leaving that up for a debate. I thought [Bodied] did such a good job of critiquing competitive wokeness, but not coming from the usual right-wing place. What were some of the conversations that you had around that?

Well, it’s funny ’cause my writer on it, Alex Larson, is from Canada. And you know how people in America always go, “Canadians are communists” because they’re socialists or whatever, [even though] they’re barely anything. Well, Alex is a straight-up communist. Alex is a full-on, red-card Marxist-Leninist, right? And he is so leftist, and he is so wracked with white guilt, he is literally the cliché, you know? And he’s the one that wrote the movie.

On the flip side, he’s very self-aware, and he comes from the high-intelligentsia world. There are so many pieces of Adam that are loosely based on Alex’s experiences. And we had a serious discussion that we wanted to talk about offense culture, because, at the end of the day, Alex is a battle rapper named Kid Twist, and he’s a walking contradiction from all of his liberal points of view. Once he goes up on stage, he says the weirdest, craziest, most racist things. And what does that mean? And what’s that mean for greater society that there’s this world of people that go out and say really offensive things, and yet, on a strange level, they’re more friends. When a black guy and a white guy just rip each other on their race for like 45 minutes in a battle, and they go get a beer afterwards, versus the sort of wokeness that you see on college campuses, where it’s, like, a group of white kids are talking about how they’re not racist but they don’t know one black person. You know? So, we’re just going into it and trying to explore that concept and that irony.

It seems like in the rap battle, there’s a set context. And the rest of society, so much of what we do, or at least in social media, is like we’re constantly trying to decontextualize each other to prove a point.

On a certain level, Bodied is a simulation of 2018. And ultimately, it’s a simulation of Internet culture. If I did the literal version of this movie, it’d be people on Twitter, just typing. But that’s a really boring movie. So this is a visualization of that in battle rap form.

Tell me how you got started in directing music videos.

I actually started as a gangster rap director. I did that for five years. I worked in the hood. And I’m not from the hood. I’m from the suburbs. I’m originally from Korea. So it was a culture shock. My first time really experiencing battle rap was in person, where I’d be in parking lots and people would battle each other after I’d do a video. And then they would see the Asian guy standing there in a sea of African-Americans, and they’d start making fun of me. They’d stop the battle rap to make fun of me. And so it’s a living, breathing testament to my early days of filmmaking. For my first five years, this is the experience that I had. And how I got into filmmaking in the first place? I dropped out of film school. I couldn’t afford it.

Did you seek out the gangster rap world with the idea to make music videos?

Yeah, it was the only thing accessible to me at that point, because I was essentially a nerdy little Asian kid. This is back in the early, early ’90s, maybe late ’80s. And it’s funny, in this day and age, if you’re an Asian-American filmmaker, you walk around wearing it almost as a badge. “I’m Asian-American. Hire me because you need diversity.” When I started out, I hid that. I just loved the fact that nobody could know who I was because of my fortunate name. And they would just look at the reel, and you did everything you could to hide the fact that you’re Asian-American, because… you just kind of sensed that it would be negative. Whether it was a rap video, or a rock video, or whatever, it just didn’t seem like you’re, visually, what should be walking through the door, or behind a camera.

So no I did not seek out that world. What ended up happening is that I went into business trying to convince everybody to do really cheap music videos, and the only people that were available that wanted to do those videos were rappers. And quite thankfully, all of the white production companies didn’t want to go in those neighborhoods, they didn’t want to get their stuff stolen. They were afraid of it. They were afraid of shooting there. And I was just so naïve, as an Asian-American guy, that I would go into these neighborhoods and I would be shooting people talking about killing each other and drugs…I actually thought, “Oh, this is all fake. None of this really happens. This is just movies, they’re just playing around and stuff like that.” It wasn’t until six months into my gangster rap career where I was waiting for somebody to get out of jail, and I was filming a re-creation of this guy dying on top of a body and the cops are coming around, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, I think I’m recreating an actual murder scene.” And I suddenly realized, you know, what I was into.

Was that in Houston?

Houston, yeah.

So you were talking about how you sort of came up not having your identity as a calling card. Does that sort of mirror the Maya/Divine relationship a little bit, where the rapper, she’s kind of like, “What does me being a woman have to do with it?” And Maya [Adam’s disapproving white girlfriend from grad school], she’s always starting sentences like, “As a woman…”

Well, there’s an interesting thing there, because obviously Divine also identifies as a woman all the time, but there is kind of an unspoken battle going on in Bodied. Some of those things are very overt. But the Maya character is white feminism versus black feminism.

Okay.

Which is, I think, becoming much more apparent today. Like, when we wrote this movie in 2015, 2016, it wasn’t quite as obvious. But I think when you put it in context of the white feminism versus black feminism versus the intersection of those things, it becomes more clear that there is a competitive nature to the wokeness. Wokeness is not a monolith. It’s a bunch of tiny factions that can get offended by each other and compete for the same space.

Right. On that note, I read that you financed this film on your own.

Yeah.

Was that because you didn’t think that you’d be able to get outside money for it?

Yeah. The problem with Bodied is that it’s not the typical film festival movie, where white judges can watch something about racism and… the outcome is clearly expected and defined. Like, oh my God, here’s poor ethnic people, and they’re shit on, and I, as a white person watching this movie can feel good about myself because I’m one of the good people. You know what I’m saying?

Right.

The movie doesn’t do that. In fact, it kind of almost has nothing to say, on a weird level, in terms of the morality of it, on purpose. It’s a series of questions. And some people can extract one meaning, some, others. But what it doesn’t do, it doesn’t give you an answer. And what you’ve done is you’ve watched some racist jokes for two hours, laughed your ass off, and then feel bad about it. Literally, we got turned down by almost every film festival because of that.

It’s funny because I actually saw this at a festival. And I get the idea that there’s not a pat answer, and as a financier, not knowing [what it’s going to give people] ahead of time. But once the movie’s done, and I watch it, and I’m thinking, “this is crowd-pleaser.” It’s still a really fun movie. Even if you take the politics out of it, it’s just a fun, funny movie. It seems… and I don’t want to shit on YouTube or anything, but it seems weird that it didn’t get a bigger release or a bigger buyer.

I think that the question is still out on whether or not the mainstream public will still accept this movie. The hypocrisy of living life today just frustrates me. Because, at the end of the day, I know that everybody in the deep, dark pits of their soul, has stereotypes. We just have to try to admit that. We try to say that we don’t, but it’s human nature to look at somebody and the way they look and make a judgment call, like that. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism, you know? And stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s not that the stereotypes are true, like everybody says. It’s because it’s a quick thing of the way we categorize things as human beings. And then comedy itself is the contradiction of facts, right?

So, I always say comedy is a contradiction you agree with. Because, if you disagree with something, it’s not funny. But if you find a way to agree on a contradiction, then your mind flips and you’re laughing. Stereotypes are things that we tend to agree on, on a cultural level. And then if we sort of split them and contradict them, and then we come back, that’s where all this laughter is coming from in the movie. You know? And there’s this sort of veneer in life right now that we all sort of pretend that none of us ever believe any stereotypes, and it’s not fucking true.

Right.

Like, if you really did not believe in any stereotypes, none of those jokes in Bodied would land. Not a single one. But when you hear them, they’re there for a reason. You’ve heard them before, sometimes you kind of believe them, sometimes you don’t. But the ones that you absolutely disagree with, you’re not going to laugh at all. If you’re laughing at it, I’m sorry buddy, there’s a piece of you that believes this shit.

True. And again, isn’t that part of the way we’ve stripped context away? It’s like, if you make a race joke to your friend, they know it’s just a joke, because they know you. Whereas, if you’ve stripped the context away, they’re like, “Well, what if that’s what that guy is, that’s what’s in his secret heart.”

And guess what, that’s the funny thing, too. You know, I have friends of all things, and we always do race jokes. And only because they’re my friend, we can make fun of each other, and things like that. I find that there must be people walking around with no friends of any other race that are living these perfectly non-racial lives where they’re not making fun of anybody. How do you know you’re not racist at that point? You’re not interacting with anybody. And quite frankly, if you’re next to an Asian person and you’re making racist jokes, and that Asian person is being offended, you may not be his friend. That person, they might tell you that you can’t make those jokes, because you ain’t buds.

So did you actually hear specifics on why certain distributors maybe didn’t want to take a chance on this movie? Did people actually tell you, or was it just they didn’t buy it and you had to guess?

Have you listened to this movie?

I have, yeah.

It’s a dangerous movie. Even… look. We’ve gotten very good reviews, but we’ve gotten a couple of [bad ones]. I mean the good reviews outweigh the bad ones, but the ones that are bad, they’re all offended by the movie. You can just see that it’s literally just a woke person going, “How dare you make fun of woke culture?” And there’s nothing funny about that. And those people, even though they’re a tiny percentage, will be the most vocal. Everybody else will laugh and then they go on about their lives. But the ones that are mad will stick around. And so, that’s just bad for corporate branding, quite frankly.

Sure. I mean, is it harder now to critique competitive wokeness without getting lumped into, like, the Proud Boys, or whatever?

Yeah. And that is definitely a danger, but I think that we put some fail-safe mechanisms in the movie. Clearly, the movie doesn’t go on saying that you can be as racist as you want. Literally the entire point of the movie is that he does cross a line. It’s up to the audience to judge it and to think about it. But again, I’m not trying to spoonfeed the audience, either. I hope that the people that watch it… well, unfortunately, the cliché you always say is that you don’t want to underestimate the audience’s intelligence, but reality is, we got Trump elected, so…

Right.

But I think there’s a fail-safe mechanism. The algorithm of the movie itself does not allow you to walk away going, “Yay, racism!” The algorithm still makes you go out going, “Hmm. I better think about this.”

In years past, you might have assumed a certain level of intelligence on the part of the audience — do you think it’s declining? It seems like it’s harder to do politically complex things and trust that smarter people are going to get it.

I think it’s part of our culture that, even when we watch movies, we want our movies to spoonfeed our politics to us. The safe bet for this movie would have been taking a firm side one way or the other, and spoonfeeding it, and letting the audience know exactly how they should feel and how they should think. And that is like 99% of the film festival movies. They absolutely spoonfeed what lesson you’re supposed to walk out with, and it’s easy to analyze, and it’s easy to know what you’re supposed to feel. Bodied doesn’t do that. That is the danger of Bodied. We’re just giving you the mechanism to debate. But I truly believe that the mechanism of debate is a solid one. Clearly, the movie is saying, here you go, now debate.

Do you think having a music video career, does that give you more freedom in terms of the kind of movies that you want to make?

It’s a freedom and a trap, in that, whenever I take a music video, when I accept it and I sign on the dotted line, literally, I’m signing chunks of my life away. Like, I will go, “oh, here’s a great music video.” And literally three months goes out the door. As soon as I start it, I go in a hole, and three months later the music video is done. Three months of life have passed by. Do a couple of those in a year and do a couple years of that… that’s why I do one movie every seven years. Because I’ll do music videos and commercials and short films and things like that, and all of the sudden, life just rapidly spins by. And the funny thing is that, when you do a music video, time accelerates. Days whip by, because you’re panicking and you’ve got to get it out on a deadline. And so, the three months feels like three days. And next thing you know, you’re an old man going, “Holy shit, I’ve done a bunch of music videos, where’s my film career?”

So I know Eminem was a producer on this, and you’ve directed some of his videos. In 8 Mile, because Eminem’s sort of from that world, you don’t really have to wrestle with the idea of a white guy being the hero of a battle rap movie. Was part of this movie a way to sort of wrestle with that idea?

Well, it is different. You’re still asking the same question, okay? When 8 Mile came out, the whole question was, can a white guy rap? Right? Flash forward 18 years, 16 years later, the question isn’t, can a white boy rap? It’s, is that a cultural appropriation?

Right.

It’s a whole different context. We know that white guys can rap now. But is it legitimate? And is there a reason for this. And that’s what Bodied explores, coming from a completely different point of view.

So there’s a self-referential joke about an Eminem video director. What was that about you? I missed it the first time.

Oh, it’s gonna be so quick and very few people will get it. It’s like a complete in-joke. He says a Filipino guy, I’m Korean. He says, “makes gay-ass art films.” So basically, Loaded Lux says the line, so he’s being racist and homophobic all in one line, dismissing me, which I thought was hilarious.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.

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