'Bodied' Director Joseph Kahn On The Value Of Battle Rap And The Difficulty Of Getting A Risky Film Distributed [Interview]

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Joseph Kahn's Bodied chronicles the misadventures of a white battle rapper, Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) who struggles with finding where to draw the line in terms of speech. The film is offensive, hilarious, and a ton of fun, winning a slew of awards during its run on the film festival circuit. Bodied landed on YouTube Premium last fall and today it's out on iTunes and Blu-Ray.

I had a chance to chat with Joseph about what he thinks about the value of battle rap is for our society, as well as the challenges he encountered getting Bodied out into the world. Hit the jump to read excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity. You can also listen to the whole conversation in podcast form below.

David: Bodied was a massive success on the festival circuit, won the Audience Award at AFI Fest and Fantastic Fest, and the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was then released on YouTube Premium on Eminem's YouTube page, where presumably it was seen by millions of people. Why was it important for you to release this movie on Blu-ray, on physical media, and what was the journey it took for Bodied to get there?Joseph Kahn: Well, the importance of having it on physical media is that, just, people want to own the movie, in case any of these streaming sites shut down. I understand that concern, and I want to provide an option for them to have that. Also, there are a lot of people that just aren't on YouTube premium, quite frankly. Their strategy changed completely. I mean, it's a long story, but essentially when I sold them the movie, and by the time it got released, their strategy completely changed. Originally they were essentially trying to become another Netflix, and then somewhere within that year that I sold it, they switched strategy...When you have an abandoned strategy and Bodied [is behind] a paywall, it gets a little hard for people to see it, so here we are. We're going to go on iTunes, we're going to go on physical media and a few other places.Yeah, I was happy to hear that it would be getting another release, particularly because, as you mentioned, the strategy had changed. You were kind of like a movie that had been bought under a different strategy, and had to live under the new one, right?

Let's be clear about this. It's not just the fact that I sold to YouTube. It wasn't like the movie had a lot of options in being sold, because as well as it did on the festival circuit – and we killed it, we won all those awards, we even had the New York Times give us a Critic's Pick of the Week. These are extremely big things, including the super-high Rotten Tomatoes score and everything like that – you would think that it would sell easily to any corporate streamer of something like that.

You know what we actually found out? They were extremely afraid of the movie. As good as the movie was, and as bonafide of a hit as it was on pretty much every button you could choose, the bottom line is, it's an extremely offensive movie. In this day and age, a movie where a white guy essentially says the N-word, and people are saying the F-word and the G-word, and every letter of the alphabet towards each other, literally all the big streamers were afraid of the movie. They just said, "We cannot put this out there, even if you have the best intentions, because we're just afraid of the fallout that our stockholders will have to answer for."

David: One thing that Bodied asks us to consider is what the context of any particular remark is. These are battle rappers in this movie that can fling the most ridiculous racist remarks at each other, but at the end of the day, they still respect each other. They understand that it is part of this context that they're in, and they can give each other props. What do you feel like battle rapping can teach us about how to better interact online in the world, if anything?

I don't think that battle rap is going to really teach you how to interact in the real world, because if you did what they did, you would just get shot, punched or canceled. I think it's more of a performative freedom of speech experience, that you need things like this to happen in society. Otherwise, the end result is Singapore. By the way, I love Singapore. What I mean by that is, I visited Singapore literally like a week ago, and it's a fantastic, beautiful city.

Singapore is this Asian island in the middle of Muslim countries in Southeast Asia. It's like this oasis of Chinese people and Indian people, mostly Chinese though, but the smartest people in Asia basically just ran in there, and they decided to make a perfect society. When you land in Singapore, it is absolutely perfect. It's as clean as Japan, the buildings are brand spanking new, the economy is wonderful, the people are polite. If you step into it, you suddenly realize one thing is happening there. It's literally just a collection of malls. It's like, you can walk from one building to another, and then there's a sky walkway and you go into another mall, and you walk a little further, you go into another mall, and the whole city is just this interconnected mall.

People aren't allowed to eat bubblegum. They can't spit on the street or they're caned. Everyone's super polite, but there is a certain lack of life going on. Again, I love my Singaporeans, but ultimately it's a very conformist perspective of society. I feel that if I just lived there the whole time, I would lose all my creativity. You would lose something about yourself. It's a little soulless, you know? I think that battle rap is the epitome of throwing a bomb in the middle of this thing and making it explode and shaking people up. If it serves no other purpose than basically saying "fuck you" to censorship, then it's a win, in my perspective. You don't want a perfect society. It's boring as fuck.

There is a moment in [Bodied] where a character goes over the line with the battle rapping. I won't say too much about it because it's theoretically a spoiler, but even in the context of battle rapping, there is something known as crossing the line. He goes too far, in a certain aspect. I'm curious: is there anything that you do think goes too far when it comes to speech?

Well, obviously, yes. There are limitations to speech. As to the nuance of that particular idea, I leave that up to society to debate it, and at least there should be a debate about it, but I will say one thing about that particular scene. Some of the audience may have seen it and some of the audience may not. I don't think it was just a comment about speech. It was a comment about opportunism and a misunderstanding of the game that you're playing, because Adam specifically, the hero of the movie, we've been following him, and he has the right to say whatever he wants, but does he really understand what he's saying and does he understand what people are doing?

There is responsibility, in terms of the culture, in terms of saying things, but obviously you want it to be informed. You don't want to just debate idiots. You don't want to just let idiots just scream at you the whole time, because that's not really speech. What you want is an informed society that is actually having the freedom to debate whatever they want, with the understanding that they are definitely trying to understand ... If they don't understand the context, it's completely uncivil on a basic level, and you're not going to ever have a conversation. You're literally just punching each other in the face with words. That's kind of where I lie on that. It's a little bit of a cop-out. I think that there are limits to free speech, but I think that an intelligent society should be able to debate it and figure out where that is.

To debate the limits themselves, you mean?

Yeah, absolutely.

As opposed to everyone coming in with one definition and forcing everyone else to accept it?

I mean, look. If I didn't like your wedding, which I think you had a beautiful wedding probably, David, right? I can tell you that these are the reasons I didn't like your wedding, and you can choose to be my friend or not. You could say, "Well, that's his freedom of speech." One thing that should not happen is to go to a wedding and start saying, "This is a shitty wedding and this is free speech." Right? That's just uncivil. Obviously, there are logical aspects to this that are philosophical. I am a free speech absolutist, but I'm a free speech absolutist within the context of intelligent debate.


This interview is part of a much longer conversation with Joseph that I had on my new podcast, Culturally Relevant. You can listen/subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.