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Review: Bodied

November 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Adam (Calum Worthy) is a nerdy graduate student at Berkeley who is fascinated by battle rap. Writing his thesis paper on the use of the “N-word” in hip-hop culture, despite not saying it himself, he is the epitome of a young, white progressive trying to balance being seen as “woke” while also getting sucked into a racially charged and decidedly anti-PC world.

Adam is the main character in Bodied, a thrilling satire that takes us on a wild ride through the increasingly polarized worlds of identity politics, campus censorship and modern outrage culture, at a time when “words are weapons” has become a popular mantra that is being used to “deplatform” certain speakers.

When Adam accidentally falls into battle with another rapper after a competition, and comes out on top with his mad rhyming skills, he gets taken under the wing of fellow battle rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). He becomes fiercely competitive in the underground world, but his increasing immersion into battle rap culture, and all of the racially charged and offensive content that comes with it, comes to threaten his academic career, and also alienates him from his radical feminist, social justice warrior girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), who views battle rap as inherently sexist.

Not only is this a wildly entertaining battle rap movie, but it also tackles vital themes of free speech, and if there are any lines you shouldn’t cross. There are so many things in the film that carry allusions to what is really happening on so many college and university campuses in this era of increasing political correctness, not only at Berkeley, but also here in Toronto. The film pokes fun at the hypocrisies of the regressive left, brilliantly satirizing things like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” showing how they have actually made people more intolerant to different experiences and ideas.

For example, Maya is a far-left vegan who is trying to square her own self-satisfied “wokeness” with the fact that she is a white girl criticizing predominantly black culture. The film also cleverly explores ideas of cultural appropriation through the theme of Adam being a white kid who is obsessed with rap, a big part of which includes using racial slurs. But at the same time, Bodied also explores the outer boundaries of free speech and how one can quickly go too far in the other direction in terms of rejecting PC culture, with Adam ultimately crossing a line from artfully transgressive to overly personal. While pretty much anything goes in battle rap, there are still some things you shouldn’t say.

The screenplay by Toronto battle rapper Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist) is filled with clever wordplay, taking a no holds barred approach to its material, and never holding back from even the most offensive and politically incorrect content. Director Joseph Kahn, who is perhaps best known for his Taylor Swift music videos, imbues the film with cool stylistic touches, especially when visually illustrating Adam’s mental process of developing rhymes in his mind during a battle.

The whole last act of the film is insane, becoming an intensely thrilling rap battle that comes at us from all sides and stuns not just because of the ferocity of the rhymes, but also because of what is really being said underneath it all. While Bodied works on the surface as a slick and stylish immersion into the battle rap scene, complete with some killer rhymes and a producer credit for Eminem, the film also tackles deeper themes underneath, and that’s what makes it so compelling to watch.

The film is finally arriving in theatres now after making its world premiere at TIFF in 2017, where it picked up the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award, in a true testament to how well it plays with a crowd. It’s a blast through and through, and if you get the chance, I would recommend watching it in a packed theatre with an appreciative audience to get the full experience.

Bodied is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

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