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.