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By Steven Shaviro
Joseph Kahn did not much care for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016). When the movie opened, he unleashed a sarcastic Twitter storm: “White people will love LA LA LAND…The dance numbers in LA LA LAND feel like Verizon commercials…99% of the couples in LA are interracial, except the one in LA LA LAND, and the white couples at Cinerama Dome watching that white couple…LA LA LAND is exactly like Los Angeles when I got there in 1995. White people swing dancing around coffee shops…I have yet to meet one black person who saw LA LA LAND who didn’t complain about how wack the dancing and singing was.”
Kahn’s spectacular new movie Bodied (which was in post-production when La La Land was released) can perhaps be thought of as the anti-La La Land. For one thing, Bodied is raucously multiracial and multicultural—in sharp contrast to La La Land’s generic whiteness, and its presentation of Ryan Gosling as the white custodian of a 60-year-old African-American art form (’50s cool jazz) that black people themselves (in the person of John Legend) are accused of having forgotten or debased. Bodied is about contemporary battle rap, rather than old-school jazz. From its point of view, even LL Cool J is old news (early in the film, LL Cool J is mentioned alongside Dostoyevsky by a university professor who is clearly clueless about what’s happening now). Bodied entirely rejects the driving force of La La Land: its nostalgia, its longing for a supposedly simpler and better time, and its lament for lost older forms of cultural expression and authority. Kahn simply has no interest in cultural idealization and recuperation. Bodied implicitly follows Brecht’s maxim that we should not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.
Bodied also bears comparison with La La Land because Kahn’s film is something like a mutated musical. Indeed, Bodied pretty much follows the rules of the genre, alternating between narrative sequences and big production numbers. The only difference is that in Bodied the musical performances are replaced by spoken-word rap battles. Instead of singing, the rappers sling vicious rhymes at one another. And instead of dancing, the rappers get physical: as they spew their insults, they gesture, they bob around, and they get up in each other’s faces. In Hollywood musicals, everything builds to the big production numbers, which give intense expression to the characters’ experiences and emotions, but also work as compelling spectacles in their own right. Everything in Bodied similarly builds up to the thrilling set-piece rap battles, which are held in bars and warehouses before cheering crowds.
It’s hard to take a form as overfamiliar and as heavily codified as the musical and make it compelling to today’s jaded audiences. Arguably, La La Land’s struggle with this difficulty is what that film is really about. Kahn faces a similar problem with Bodied, which is every bit as self-conscious as La La Land. Bodied is filled with lines and performances that seem as if they were being delivered “in quotation marks,” thus to acknowledge their own derivative status. Dare I say that both films are post-postmodern, or, to use a term that comes from Kahn’s 2011 film Detention, steeped in post-irony? The battle rappers in Bodied themselves complain about the “corny jokes” and “cliché-ass lines” that they hear from their opponents over and over again, and that they often also find themselves compelled to use. But they have to accept this situation, because all that “expected shit” is “what the audience wants to hear.” This is in fact a problem for all genre narratives—and especially so in our current age of ubiquitous sampling and recycling. Kahn’s own solution to this dilemma is the one suggested within the movie by the rapper Devine Write (played by the wonderful Shoniqua Shandai): “The fact that you can expect it means you can flip it. Play it to your advantage.”
Indeed, Bodied flips all the conventions it uses. I have long felt that, for all that he overloads his movies (and music videos) with heightened, outrageous, and often controversial content, Joseph Kahn is something of a secret formalist. His self-imposed formal challenge in Bodied is how to make a kinetic and dynamic movie from a screenplay that is word-heavy, largely composed of one-on-one verbal exchanges. I have never seen a movie that does so much with that old staple of narrative cinema, the basic shot-reverse-shot setup. In Bodied, both rap battles and everyday interactions (including phone calls and Skype chats as well as people talking in the same physical space) are presented from surprising angles, with sharp, frequent cuts between close-ups and longer shots, as well as between speaker and addressee and spectators. These sequences also feature flips of perspective (often by the deliberate flouting of the 180-degree rule), confusions of address (when trying to hold two conversations at the same time), expressionist camera movements used as emotional punctuation, and textual and sonic interpolations (words appearing on the screen, or voices booming within a character’s head). All these devices are sometimes deployed for comedic effect; at other times, they underline the rappers’ strategic moves during the battles; at still other times, they work to amplify the stakes of everything the characters say and do.
“Bodied” as a slang term means wiped out, utterly defeated (equivalent to video gamers’ “pwned” or “owned”); but the movie also suggests—through its editing and cinematography as much as through its content—that speech acts are themselves fully (em)bodied, exceedingly visceral and physical. We may tell children that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me”; but Bodied reminds us that spoken words themselves are also physical actions, with great power, and great potential to harm. As one character puts it, “Battle rap is not boxing. It’s a street fight. You won’t just get your jaw broke, you got someone right in your face trying to tear you apart.” In this movie, words cut and wound: not only because of the streams of racist, sexist, and homophobic vituperation that are spewed out during the rap battles, but also due to the way that Kahn films verbal confrontations as exciting action sequences.
This expressive amplification is the key to the movie’s defence of unfettered free speech. The rap battles in Bodied are indeed filled with aggressively vile language that will deeply offend some viewers, while giving a delicious, naughty thrill to others. And the movie shows little patience for people who would just like to shut this discourse down. Indeed, Kahn and his Toronto-born screenwriter Alex Larsen (aka the battle rapper Kid Twist) have great fun throughout the film ridiculing the speech-policing call-out culture that we find today on elite college campuses, and in some segments of the Left. No doubt, for many critics and viewers this defence of free speech will be the movie’s biggest takeaway.
But things are a bit more complicated than that. The movie certainly mocks elitist college students who pontificate about “full communism,” without ever questioning their own highly privileged status. But whatever else it does, Bodied remains entirely devoid of the retro resentment, the rage at the decline of white patriarchal authority, that lies behind the most common attacks (by mainstream media as well as the alt-right) on so-called “political correctness.” Bodied doesn’t just seek to shock us with transgressive speech; rather, it asks us to actively think about our reactions to language that we find offensive.
In other words, Bodied rejects censorship, but it still insists that our choice of words matters. Battle rappers say so many nasty things precisely because their fate hinges on their use of language. The movie therefore offers us a panoply of different responses, none of them definitive, to the problem of transgressive speech. One crucial suggestion comes from the African-American rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long): “You never heard of code-switching, motherfucker?” Behn points to the importance of using different kinds of speech in different situations. He doesn’t speak to his family at home in the way that he does to opponents in rap battles; indeed, he keeps his private life entirely separate from his public persona. Like many African-Americans, Behn fluently switches between standard English and African-American Vernacular English, depending on circumstances. For oppressed groups, such code-switching has historically been crucial to their very survival. If you’re a slave, you can’t let the master know what you really think, but you also can’t let the master’s language completely efface your own. Code-switching remains a skill that people in positions of power might not need or even know about, but that others are obliged to cultivate.
Meanwhile, Behn’s wife Jas (Candice Renee) notes that Behn’s rapping makes money that helps support their family. Jas acerbically suggests that for white folks to protest against battle rap’s negative language is frivolous at a time when her husband, or any other black man in America, “no matter how much money he makes, no matter how well he speaks, no matter how many suits he puts on…could still go out and get shot in the street by the police for no reason.”
Still another approach comes up in a rap battle between the black woman rapper Devine Write and the Korean-American rapper Prospek (played by Jonathan Park, who also appeared in Detention). When they face off, each takes up the other’s lines, much to the confusion of the spectators. Prospek unleashes a barrage of slurs against Asians, and Devine replies with a misogynistic rant. Their hope is that taking these phrases up and flipping them, or putting them in an absurd context, may rob them of at least some of their power. Banning offensive speech merely gives the forbidden words a hidden allure; and erasing certain words doesn’t make the attitudes behind the words go away. We cannot entirely escape, and we should not ignore, the racist and sexist codes that are so prevalent in our society. It’s better to jam them, mess with them, disrupt them.
Rap battles are intensely performative, which is why they are filled with hyperbolic statements that might not be acceptable in other situations. But, at the same time, these performances cannot be walled off from the rest of life. Code-switching and code-jamming only work up to a point. There’s no firm line separating merely symbolic confrontations from actual, literal ones. Throughout the movie, each of these slips into the other. At several points, everyday conversations turn confrontational; the movie responds by treating them as rap battles, with onscreen titles and expressive camera work—even though there is no audience. In the other direction, the berserk rapper Megaton (played by actual battle rapper Dizaster) has trouble keeping battles apart from the rest of his life; a number of times, his verbal aggressions end with him sucker-punching, or otherwise physically abusing, his opponent. When he catches another rapper having sex with his girlfriend, he first threatens his opponent with a shotgun, but then demands a rap battle in order to resolve the beef.
Bodied also “flips it,” turning “the expected shit” of genre norms inside out, through its treatment of plot and character. The movie feeds us an all-too-familiar story, with an all-too-familiar protagonist, and then it pulls the rug from under us. Adam, the lead character of Bodied, is a young, naïve white guy who leaves his comfort zone (his life as a graduate student at an elite university, where he is writing a Master’s thesis on “the use of the n-word in battle rap”) and enters into a dangerous and exotic realm (the actual, mostly non-white world of battle rap). Adam starts out as a newbie, but he soon finds a mentor in Behn Grymm, from whom he gains acceptance and learns valuable lessons. Ultimately, however, Adam outgrows and surpasses his mentor—or, more precisely, betrays him. After numerous difficulties and setbacks, Adam finally triumphs. By the end of the movie, the people of the exotic realm (the battle rappers) recognize that this white dude is better at what they do than they themselves are. Even Megaton, who is Adam’s greatest enemy, acknowledges as much.
This basic plot—the hero’s journey, the Joseph Campbell “monomyth”—is a staple of Hollywood filmmaking. You see it not only in Star Wars (1977) and Avatar (2009), but (more relevantly to Bodied) in such popular tales of the white underdog’s competitive triumph as Rocky (1976) and 8 Mile (2002). But Bodied shits all over the monomyth. As Kahn himself recently said on Twitter, “I hate the Hollywood cliché that you have to like your protagonist. No, you don’t.” The way this works is tricky. Bodied is set up so that we go along with Adam’s journey, seeing everything that happens from his perspective. This would normally lead us to “identify” with him, and take his triumphs as our own. But at the same time that the narrative arc exalts Adam as a hero, his character gets dissected and discredited right before our eyes.
A lot of this is accomplished through brilliant acting. The character of Adam is played—in a superb coup of casting against type—by Calum Worthy, previously known for his role as Dez, the goofy best friend of the protagonist in the Disney children’s show Austin and Ally. In Bodied, Worthy takes aspects of his Disney persona—the innocuous baby face, the nerdy and slightly overwrought enthusiasm, the wheedling bids for sympathy—and uses them as a kind of mask. He turns the full force of his charm upon the audience, just as he does with his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) and his fellow graduate students. But he also shows us that there is a lot of ugly stuff lurking behind this façade. Adam succeeds in battle rap (and loses his girlfriend) by learning how to unleash his inner bigot, projecting aggressive anger and malice, and spewing out the most extreme slurs that he can imagine.
Worthy highlights all this with his carefully nuanced performance. Over the course of the movie, we see a bit too much of Adam’s self-congratulatory smirk. His perpetual gaucheness comes to the forefront, in non-battle situations, with Behn and the other (black, Latino, Asian, and Arab) members of his crew. Often, when they are joking around with what they themselves know to be stupid, ignorant stereotypes, Adam comes forth with something so breathtakingly obtuse and tone-deaf as to stun them all into silence. Adam is also unable to conceal his surprise when he learns that Behn isn’t really a gangsta from the ’hood, but lives a solidly middle-class life with his wife and daughter in “the safest neighbourhood in Oakland.” In other words, Adam is a bit too prone to believe his own clichés and racist assumptions. As Jas says with considerable exasperation: “Damn it! I can’t believe I just had to blacksplain some shit to you in my own damn house!” We gradually realize that Adam is devoid of empathy, and unable to grasp anyone else’s point of view. All this undermines the narrative setup of the privileged white outsider as “our” surrogate for entering into, and gradually learning to master, the exotic (i.e., largely non-white) world of battle rap.
Adam tries to maintain his innocuous façade for himself, as well as for others. He wants to believe that deep down he’s a good person. No matter how vicious his bars in the rap battles are, he keeps on telling everybody around him that he isn’t really a racist. “It’s battle rap,” he says, “anything goes in a battle, right?” But over the course of the film, we are once again forced to recognize that things aren’t so simple. Behn answers Adam that, “Yeah, anything goes.” But then Behn goes on to ask him, “You think your words ain’t got fucking consequences?” You can say anything in a rap battle; but, since words are actions, you’ve got to own up to whatever it is you say and accept the prospect of “everybody calling you out on your shit.” This is what Adam remains unable to do, which is why Behn’s final judgment on him is that he is “a degenerate scumbag.” The whole movie turns on the cognitive dissonance between Adam’s singular accomplishment (his triumph in terms of the heroic narrative) and his revealed character (which is racist in a way that is all too typical for white Americans). In Bodied, as much as in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), the people you really need to watch out for are the white folks who swear that they aren’t racist.
I think that Bodied, together with his earlier film Detention, establishes Joseph Kahn as one of the most important filmmakers working in North America today. We live at a time when new technologies are reshaping all the aspects of life that used to be taken for granted. Changing demographics mean that the US is more vibrantly multicultural than ever before, yet the country remains under the political control of white supremacists hell-bent on revenge. At least some people in Hollywood know that under such conditions it’s no longer possible to make movies in the ways that they used to. Films like La La Land deserve at least some credit for trying to grapple with this situation. But Kahn faces our contemporary condition more boldly, and more imaginatively, than nearly anyone else in the film industry seems capable of doing. He knows how to both manage and scramble the codes. His movies do not give us political solutions, but they are astonishing aesthetic inventions, among the rare works that manage to be (as Lenin’s saying goes) as radical as reality itself.