June 20, 2019

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Rap-battle movie surprisingly self-aware

Eminem-produced film entertaining, but relies on its comedy to make up for lack of cohesion

SUPPLIED</p><p>Behn Grymm (Jackie Long, left) takes on Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) in one of the rap battles in Bodied.</p>

SUPPLIED

Behn Grymm (Jackie Long, left) takes on Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) in one of the rap battles in Bodied.

Bodied is a satirical drama about rap battles and political correctness that’s produced by Eminem: how you feel about that sentence may inform your enjoyment of this scattershot but often insightful film.

Calum Worthy plays Adam Merkin, a white English student at Berkeley who’s doing his thesis on the use of language in rap battles.

After snagging an interview with Behn Grymm (charismatic Jackie Long), a deadly sniper of the craft, he finds himself roped into a battle and discovers he’s somewhat of a natural.

Of course, as a weedy white guy, he’s in an uncomfortable position, not only because he’s an anomaly, but because rap battles are take-no-prisoners roasts and the black and Latino combatants know he’s going to pull his punches when it comes to race.

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Bodied is a satirical drama about rap battles and political correctness that’s produced by Eminem: how you feel about that sentence may inform your enjoyment of this scattershot but often insightful film.

Calum Worthy plays Adam Merkin, a white English student at Berkeley who’s doing his thesis on the use of language in rap battles.

After snagging an interview with Behn Grymm (charismatic Jackie Long), a deadly sniper of the craft, he finds himself roped into a battle and discovers he’s somewhat of a natural.

Of course, as a weedy white guy, he’s in an uncomfortable position, not only because he’s an anomaly, but because rap battles are take-no-prisoners roasts and the black and Latino combatants know he’s going to pull his punches when it comes to race.

The Victoria, B.C.-born Worthy (a slight redhead who looks like a cross between Domhnall Gleeson and Rupert Grint, something his battle foes never fail to latch onto) makes a believable if unlikely rapper, spitting out rhymes with increasing confidence even as you see his discomfort in crossing deeply ingrained lines.

"At least you knew I was Korean, instead of calling me ‘chink’ the whole time," Asian rapper Prospek (Jonathan "Dumbfoundead" Park) tells him.

"As far as I’m concerned, that’s culturally sensitive by battle-rap standards."

The rap battles — featuring real-life stars such as Dizaster and Hollow da Don — are deeply uncomfortable and wildly entertaining, kinetically filmed bouts combining a jaw-dropping level of "oh no he didn’t" with rhymes so cerebral you’ll want to rewind and so base you’ll want to fast forward.

The story is partially autobiographical — Toronto screenwriter Alex Larsen was a successful battle rapper under the name Kid Twist — and although it sometimes feels more like a collection of ideas than a real plot (and too long at two hours), it’s provocative, shocking and funny enough to overcome its lack of cohesion.

It also addresses the sticks-and-stones question: can words be weapons, depending on who wields them? No matter how accepted Adam becomes, there’s no escaping the fact jibes about him being a nerdy ginger literally pale in comparison to whatever racial slurs he chooses to dole out in return; any kudos for his performance come tempered with cringes. (The one non-guilty laugh comes when he tells a dippy coed, "You look like you’d smoke pumpkin spice out of a junkie’s pipe.")

However, the film perhaps too often feels as if it’s covering its own butt, providing justification for revelling in misogyny, homophobia and racism by trotting out the notion of rap battles as a cultural institution that’s incomprehensible to folks living in an ivory tower.

Behn tells Adam that anyone white who asks about the N-word is secretly dying for permission to use the N-word; it’s not a stretch to interpret Bodied as the very embodiment of this idea. By making its white characters largely privileged intellectuals who parrot well-meaning tropes without any lived experience, it gives itself carte blanche to gloss over some uncomfortable points.

The characters largely exist only to spout expository dialogue representing viewpoints the filmmakers want included, from Adam’s uptight vegan girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) lecturing him on appropriation to female rapper Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai, a force) turning misogyny on its head in one vulgar but astounding battle performance.

However, Bodied covers its bases with a certain self-awareness, heading viewers off before they can cry foul.

"This ain’t an act," Behn exclaims angrily when it’s revealed he’s not the streetwise thug he appears to be in the ring.

"You never heard of code-switching, motherf—-er?"

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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