Days before the world premiere of his latest film, “Bodied,” the crackling battle rap satire that kicks off the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program tonight with a trigger warning for the easily offended, filmmaker and frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Joseph Kahn snickered mischievously over sushi in Santa Monica. He was predicting what his most recent Internet enemies might make of the film.
“If you’re a 15-year-old girl watching this movie, you’re going to cry and you’re going to think I’m an evil person,” Kahn said and laughed, referring to the Beyoncé hordes he’s been tangling with on Twitter who have accused his latest Swift music video, “Look What You Made Me Do,” of stealing visual cues from Queen Bey. “I’m basically battle rapping on Twitter.”
Ironically it was while fending off irate tween fans and critics two years ago over another contentious Taylor Swift video — for “Wildest Dreams,” which some believed romanticized a white colonial Africa setting — that Kahn found his way into the story that had been germinating for “Bodied,” a fish-out-of-water comedy that also serves as a searing examination of race, appropriation and freedom of speech in today’s America.
“I suddenly understood the conflict of what’s going on in society and what battle rap serves, what prism to look at the movie through,” he said between bites of yellowtail, unable to resist adding one last jab at the Beyhive over Swift’s new video. “It’s not ‘Formation’ at all. They try to say she’s wearing a black crop top and Beyoncé wore a black crop top. But they don’t realize in 2015 in ‘Bad Blood,’ Taylor Swift was wearing a black crop top. I really do think, by the way, that Beyoncé copied ‘Bad Blood.’”
The Korean American music video director, filmmaker and social media provocateur is clearly unafraid of controversy, and “Bodied” promises to stir plenty of it, amplified by the prominent co-sign of rap recording star Eminem, a producer on the film.
The film tracks Adam (Calum Worthy), a privileged white grad student who reinvents himself in the world of underground battle rap in which combatants wield words as weapons, turning hip-hop’s lyrical art into a one-on-one martial art with one goal: to destroy their opponent as brutally as possible using rhyme, insults, stereotypes and all manner of offensive R-rated epithets.
Every racist, misogynist and homophobic insult gets lobbed around like grenades in “Bodied” — along with winking pop culture zingers and heady references to tomes like “The Brothers Karamazov” — which Kahn financed himself and is shopping to distributors in Toronto, his first feature film since 2012’s “Detention.”
It’s a film in which the hero seeks a pass to speak the most taboo word there is in the world of white folk: the N-word. There’s no way his buddy Swift can endorse this movie, Kahn said and laughed, but the high-profile Toronto festival berth is poised to give the film a prominent launching pad.
The project started coming together in the spring of 2015, when Kahn reached out to a battle rapper whose videos he’d seen online, with a query out of the blue: “Do you write movie scripts?”
Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen, a Toronto-based rapper and writer known for the creative verbal constructions with which he eviscerated his opponents in competitions like the popular King of the Dot battles, jumped at the chance. He and Kahn weren’t necessarily looking to make a movie about battle rap, but that’s what emerged, with Larsen drawing inspiration from his own experience.
Set in the Bay Area, “Bodied” finds Adam venturing out of his poetry professor father’s shadow into an underground rap battle only to discover to his surprise, and that of his eventual battling mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), that he’s a gifted lyrical assassin himself.
To the chagrin of disapproving fellow UC Berkeley student and girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), Adam is taken under Behn’s wing and the newbie starts honing his craft alongside fellow battlers played by a mix of actual battle rappers (Dumbfoundead, Dizaster) and actors (Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai). Hip-hop personality Charlamagne Tha God also makes an appearance as a promoter in several battle scenes, for which the real life rappers in the cast rewrote their own bars.
Larsen himself quit battling several times during his career only to find himself pulled back time and again, and wrote his own philosophical and psychological critiques of the sport into “Bodied.”
“It’s so intense, and there’s so much pressure, yet it’s so compelling that on one level it really is like a drug,” he explained via phone from Toronto. “You get a fix of it and as soon as you finish, the elation is so incredible you want to immediately do another one. It’s one of the most grueling and exhilarating things you can do.”
It’s tempting to read a similar confessional quality into the involvement of Eminem, who came aboard as producer alongside longtime manager and newly minted Def Jam CEO and president Paul Rosenberg. According to Rosenberg, the rapper was hooked by the film’s loving depiction of battle rap as an art form and is planning on contributing to the film’s soundtrack.
He also cautions against assuming that one Eminem-produced movie about a white battle rapper is a sequel to the other Eminem-produced movie about a white battle rapper, “8 Mile.” “Let me just make that very clear,” said Rosenberg. “It’s not [autobiographical]. We did that already.”
The idea of tapping a battle rapper to script a movie first came to Kahn in 2000 when he was attached to direct DMX and Eminem in a "Crow" sequel that eventually fell apart. "I’d actually convinced Eminem to be in it — I was going to do a DMX vs. Eminem ‘Crow’ movie where DMX was going to be the black Crow and Eminem was going to be the white Crow," he said.
He shrugged. "It would have been a terrible movie because I would have made it funny, and ‘Crow’ movies aren’t supposed to be funny."
While “Bodied” teems with the energy and detail of the subculture it represents, it also presents the brutal gladiator grounds of battle rap as the last safe space for free speech — vicious, venomous, cutting free speech, but free nonetheless.
“People who really understand the sport and understand the genre know who really belongs and who doesn’t,” offered Rosenberg. “If you belong and you’ve proven yourself and that you have the proper respect for the craft, the culture, and your opponent, the stuff that you say in a battle is never really taken that seriously in the real world.”
Larsen concurred. “It’s the one last arena where you can say the most horrible things to each other and it’s acceptable, because at the end of the day you’re friends — or at least you have a level of respect for each other as competitors.”
He wrote elements of his own infamous 2009 battle against Korean American rapper Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park into the film, in which Park plays a supporting role as a fellow battler Adam first meets in the ring. Just like Larsen did in real life, the “Bodied” protagonist finds it easier to go on the offensive with easy racist lines, against his better judgment.
“My feelings about that battle were conflicted at the time. I thought, ‘Asian jokes are wack, I don’t want to use them, they’re so expected,’” recalled Larsen of his face-off against Dumbfoundead. But in the heat of the moment, racist Asian jokes were what the crowd wanted to hear — and what ultimately won him the match.
“The worst part of it is that it worked perfectly. That’s still my most viewed battle on YouTube, and I won. But I feel like that was the moment in my battle career when I sold my soul to the devil. So a lot of this movie is me being able to reflect on that feeling.”
No one is safe in “Bodied,” from its white privileged male hero to his multicultural battle-rap brethren — not even the white allies who protest Adam’s offensive language when he goes viral. Exploring the loaded terrain of race politics in an apolitical, uncensored movie is in itself a risk, admits Kahn, who took partial inspiration on his approach to “Bodied” from Woody Allen’s “Match Point.” But reopening the debate over the limits of free speech in a post-Trump America, he argues, is even more necessary now.
“The problem with Trump is that he was a terrible answer to a problem that was already happening,” he said. “Now Trump is so obviously evil, Trump is so obviously wrong, Trump is so obviously on the wrong side of history, so obviously racist, so obviously everything, that the discussion is gone: All we see is Trump. All we are reacting to is Trump.
“‘Bodied’ is hopefully a little bit more nuanced about the nature of political correctness,” he continued. “Is there a limit to free speech? Is there a limit to how you can talk to someone? Are stereotypes valid, and can you even bring them up? There’s a lot of nuance in that that’s all been blown away, and there’s middle ground to talk about.
“I’m not trying to give you any answers,” said Kahn. “The world today is race-obsessed and conflicted; race is probably the biggest problem in America right now, it’s literally fracturing everything. And I’m in the thick of it.”
“People are going to get mad,” predicted Toronto Film Festival programmer Peter Kuplowsky, who slotted “Bodied” on opening night with the expectation that it would spark debate. “If a conversation is uncomfortable and not easy, that’s all the more reason to have it. That’s what a film festival should be — it should be a place where artists are taking risks, and where the audience has the opportunity to discuss them amongst themselves and with the filmmakers.”
“I was a bit worried in 2015 that people might think, ‘This is a bit outlandish,’” said Larsen. “But I think in 2017 — the era of Donald Trump and neo-Nazi marches in the street — perhaps it’s not hyperbolic enough.”