It’s easily one of the best films of the year, unquestionably one of the smartest, and definitely among the most provocative. And unless you attend the closing night of the Rio Grind Film Festival, you might miss your one shot at actually catching Bodied.
Calling the Georgia Straight from Wilmington, North Carolina, where his explosive feature was spirited into the Cucalorus Festival for an unannounced screening, Joseph Kahn reels off a sad litany of rejection notices. “New York, Sundance, South by Southwest…,” he begins. “A lot of the major festivals have been extremely offended by this movie. They won’t screen it because they’re so afraid of the content.”
It’s a ludicrous situation. Certainly, Kahn’s film pushes a lot of buttons with its tale of a nerdy white Berkeley academic who discovers his latent talent as a battle rapper in Oakland’s subterranean hip-hop scene, where the race- and gender-based slurs come thick, fast, and hilarious. (With Eminem as one of its producers, you could view Bodied, if you squint, as a sort of pirate, uncouth metasequel to 8 Mile.)
But even as it wantonly touches the third rail, Kahn’s film is too adroitly engaged in its interrogation of language, class, racism, and the “woke” affectations of the privileged to actually offend anyone besides, well, perhaps the very people most invested in protecting their woke affectations. As the Korean-American filmmaker puts it, with a snicker: “I’ve been in the entertainment business for the last 27 years, and in Hollywood, white liberalism is the de facto speech I run into.”
Most galling of all for Kahn, presumably, is that Bodied is also crazy entertaining. When TIFF’s Midnight Madness programmer, Peter Kuplowsky, ignored the advice of colleagues and took a chance on the film, he ended up booking his People’s Choice Award winner. Two weeks later, Austin’s equally gutsy Fantastic Fest handed Bodied the same prize. The appeal, Kahn reckons, is “finally getting to hear people say things honestly”.
“I think it’s a collective catharsis for everyone and the exact opposite of what these festival programmers think,” suggests the director, whose shit list has grown to include all the distributors who won’t touch his self-financed flick, partly because of its content and partly because it crashes the “little algorithm they put every film into”.
He scoffs: “These people will, literally, walk into a screening that is completely sold-out with the audience reacting like crazy and cheering and doing standing ovations, and they go: ‘No one is going to watch this film.’ Because they’re not paying attention. They’re literally going back to their checklist. ‘Does it have a star? Does it have any superheroes? Does it offend anyone?’ ”
Perhaps what is most remarkable here is that Bodied hardly emerged from any sort of underground. Kahn’s résumé as a video maker boasts a dizzying roll call of A-list artists, from Katy Perry to Janet Jackson, Wu-Tang Clan, Maroon 5, and Taylor Swift. In fact, the path to Bodied began when his video for Swift’s 2015 release “Wildest Dreams” was slammed with accusations of cultural appropriation.
Notwithstanding, as Kahn notes, that Taytay “can drink a cup of coffee and people will call her a colonialist who’s exploiting Colombian slave labour”, the director says that his efforts to defend the work were futile. “No matter what I did, no matter what I said, there was this sort of hive-mind mentality. And this is the world today. We are in a social-media bubble where if you don’t say the exact thing that everyone wants you to say, in the exact way, in the exact verbiage—you get piled on.”
And so Kahn turned to Toronto’s Alex Larsen, aka legendary rapper Kid Twist, to script a film that presents battle rap as the one arena where, he says, “you can see a white guy and a black guy call each other the most racist things and then afterwards get a beer.” Larsen dutifully turned in a perfectly calibrated satire about the state of sociopolitical discourse in 2017, brimming with allusions to low culture and high literature and peppered with brutal, frequently uproarious face-offs between what the film calls its “united colours of Benetton” protagonists.
Kahn is blunt in his appreciation of Larsen—“He’s a fucking genius. He’s a weirdo Canadian communist genius”—and he’s no less ebullient about Bodied’s lead, Victoria-born Disney star Calum Worthy, who stepped into the role of Adam when “a pretty big actor got cold feet”.
“I’m so lucky that the other douchebag dropped out and the miracle called Calum Worthy walked in,” he says. “He makes it. Without him, there’s no movie. What the fuck is going on with Canada that I gotta hire all my people there ’cause that’s where all the talent is? What the fuck is going on?”
Anyone with the answer can deliver it in person when Kahn joins Worthy and Larsen on-stage at the Rio Theatre on Sunday (November 19).
The Rio Grind Film Festival takes place at the Rio Theatre from Thursday to Sunday (November 16 to 19).