You don’t really want to know what goes on inside the brain of the anti-social white rapper Eminem (Marshall Mathers), but the new movie Bodied takes you there. Rather than explore the recent political virtue-signaling that makes him one of the innumerable vulgar, petulant showbiz celebrities of #resistance, Bodied takes you on a tour of his social fantasies.
Eminem is the producer of this film about a white graduate student in Oakland, Calif., Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), who enters the world of verbal rapping battles while researching his master’s thesis about hip-hop. Through Adam/Eminem, Bodied reveals the mindset of cultural progressives by taking language (the feints and strategies of public discourse that Obama specifically encouraged as “conversation”) to extremes of in-your-face rivalry and emotional aggression. The term “bodied” means getting beaten, exhausted, or destroyed (in dance-floor or physical competition).
Director Joseph Kahn and screenwriter Alex Larsen equate Adam/Eminem’s personal psychodrama to the carnival of ideological chaos that now defines our race-based popular culture, from TV shows such as Atlanta, Dear White People, and Insecure to academia. In contrast to those programs, which are hailed as “subversive” by mainstream media, Larsen has written the year’s cleverest script since Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad.
With a fool’s optimistic fearlessness, Adam uses “the N-word” to one of the top battle rappers, Behn Grym (Jackie Long) who responds, “Why you talking to me? There’s many other N-words who could be asking me about the N-word.” Later, when Adam begs to “disown” his birthright, his father, a famous literary critic and Dostoyevsky scholar (perfect) played by Anthony Michael Hall (again, perfect), advises that he “use a less plutocratic word than ‘disown.’”
Bodied is sharp on Millennial culture’s various means of ownership, whether it’s class, race, or sex relations; political hegemony; or the cultural provenance of the hip-hop industry. The tumultuous terrain of black machismo invaded by a white boy who thinks only in terms of “gun metaphors” rather than street survival is an audacious, febrile vision. As a beneficiary of the U.S. social and entertainment-world safety net, Eminem can easily afford the risk.
Kahn directs with his usual hectic info-overload. It’s like one of the Fast and the Furious movies but using words instead of cars, and chasing down antagonisms instead of brotherhood. Music-video-whiz Kahn comes from the world of advertising, where ideological bait-and-switch happens faster than most people — especially poorly educated, device-addicted youths — can comprehend. (Recall the naïve marveling on the Internet about “pay attention to the background” of Childish Gambino’s This Is America video.) Kahn and Larsen parade insider hip-hop references, pop homages (including Scott Pilgrim–style FX), plus satires of media, academic, and street postures — anthropological pretenses — that make the upcoming Coen brothers movie look like a Whitman’s sampler.
There’s an unbridled force to this exhibition of vulgarity and bad politics. By venting “the various poetic functions of the N-word,” Bodied makes bold use of the iambic pentameter and ghetto rhythms that Spike Lee gave up on too quickly in Chi-Raq. After sparking the vicious, murderous resentment of males pitted against one another, Lee looked away from it in order to make a disingenuous “gun violence” diatribe. Kahn and Larsen stick with raucous poetry “slamming” to portray the essence of the race and class dynamics. These battles — in which pale Adam grasps frenziedly for insults and rhymes amid teams of ferociously swaggering ghetto natives — are deep, dark fantasy, borrowing the energy of break-dancing musicals. Yet, due to the flash and heat of these scenes, the film’s intellectual stunt is overplayed.
One of the great failures of hip-hop culture is that none of its bourgeois explainers in academia or the alternative press have dealt with the pain and defensiveness of “the dozens” (that so-called folk practice of black verbal intimidation and humiliation, the origin of “bodied”). Bodied exposes that exploitation: “I’ve always seen Afro-American hyperbole as self-aware,” says Adam’s progressive girlfriend. Then the film tries to justify and sentimentalize it by way of Adam/Eminem conquering — mastering — hip-hop.
Only the film’s comic cynicism rings true. Mad TV’s Debra Wilson as university dean Alyah Hampton is a high point. “Thirty years in academia, and every man still thinks his balls have the right to interrupt me!” It is followed by a montage of her own publish-or-perish tomes: Africunt, Nubian Vaginaphobia, Negression. Top that, Wes Anderson!
This fantasy of wild, insulting belligerence overlooks the concept of internalized racism and ignores that there really isn’t much bonhomie on the streets, any more than there is in academia’s cutthroat realm, with its hidden resentments and effortful self-delusions. It also betrays a shocking sense of privilege, as when two girls critique Adam: “White boys acting like Kerouac — that’s why we don’t have Communism.” Then, going further: “The real reason we don’t have Communism is that you’re undermining interracial solidarity.” Is this what Kahn and Eminem are really selling to kids who haven’t yet graduated to the real world? It makes a nightmare of the cartoon utopia in Kahn’s pop extravaganza Torque.
Bodied never gets past the pretense of racial and youth solidarity imagined by Eminem, the egotistic pop-star. That delusion is the millennium’s “Kumbaya.”