Toronto Hidden Gem: Rap Satire 'Bodied' Tests Limits of Free Speech

Bodied Still - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

Backed by Eminem, director Joseph Kahn's film explores why offensive language is tolerated in the underground hip-hop world but condemned elsewhere.

In 2015, director Joseph Kahn was toying with different ideas for his next project when a theme came to him from the most unexpected source. He had just directed the Taylor Swift video for “Wildest Dreams,” which was sparking criticism for cultural appropriation and glorifying colonialism.

“It was set in Africa, and they just didn’t feel like white people should be in Africa, so I found that really fascinating in terms of the culture clash that was going on,” says the Korean-American filmmaker, who has directed some of the most celebrated and talked-about music videos of the past two decades, from Eminem’s “Without Me” to Swift’s recent “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Out of that frothing outrage emerged the idea for Bodied, a satire that explores the politically incorrect world of battle rap. Marking Kahn’s third feature — following the 2004 biker flick Torque and 2011 horror-comedy Detention — the film features up-and-coming Canadian actor Calum Worthy, ’80s icon Anthony Michael Hall and a bunch of mostly unknowns. In its corner, Bodied also happens to boast Eminem — arguably the greatest battle rapper of all time — as a producer.

As a longtime fan of Kid Twist, Kahn had been looking to collaborate with the Toronto rapper on a project, perhaps a documentary on underground rhyme champs. The Swift video brouhaha provided the hook they needed for a narrative feature film.

“It seemed like the dialogue that was happening [over the video] was so radically different than battle rap,” says Kahn. “In battle rap, people would say the meanest, craziest, most racist things, and then they would get a beer together, and they would be friends. I wanted to explore that in a movie.”

Kid Twist, aka Alex Larsen, wrote the screenplay with Kahn, who independently financed it and shot it before taking it to Eminem.

“I wanted to show him a very early, very crappy rough cut and see if he connected to it at all,” says Kahn, a Houston native and NYU dropout. “He watched the movie and loved it.”

Eminem and his longtime manager Paul Rosenberg (8 Mile) are putting together a soundtrack for Bodied. The cut that screened at TIFF on Sept. 7 as the opening night Midnight Madness selection didn’t have much in the way of new music, but by the time it’s bought and ready for distribution (ICM is selling worldwide rights), Eminem will contribute a number of songs to the soundtrack. The pair also has enlisted Dr. Dre for a couple of songs (though unlike Eminem's songs, they are not new).

In the meantime, the film is certain to court controversy at the festival because of its language (think liberal use of the N-word). And because it’s satire, no character is safe. Everyone is a target for roasting.

Says Kahn: “The battle rap world is an underground message of free speech. But the film doesn’t automatically take the side of free speech because there’s still the question that we’re asking: ‘Is there a limit to it?’ It’s a legitimate question.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.