Joseph Kahn is a prolific commercial and music video director, but he has only made three feature films. His first, Torque, was The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles, but he made it a spoof of The Fast and the Furious, and people expecting a straight Fast and the Furious weren’t on board. He made Detention independently, but the teen slasher comedy with time travel was a tough sell for distributors, even as a Josh Hutcherson vehicle.

On the surface, Bodied would be Kahn’s most commercial film. It’s about a college kid, Adam (Callum Worthy), who enters the world of battle rap an underdog, and becomes a champion. But there’s more to Bodied than a hero’s journey. The film takes Adam to task for being a white kid infiltrating a multi-cultural world. Though fellow rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) tells him anything goes in battle rap, Adam does face consequences for his raps.

Kahn spoke with /Film in Los Angeles this month. He filmed Bodied in 2016 and it played festivals in 2017, so the film is entering an even more volatile powderkeg of a world than he imagined in 2018. Some mild spoilers follow in this thematic discussion, so if you’re already sold, read this after you see Bodied in theaters November 2 or on YouTube Premium November 28.

After Detention was so outside the box that most distributors didn’t understand it, were you hoping that a rap battle movie would be an easier sell?

That was kind of the hope but at the end of the day, I don’t really concern myself with that. If I get too wrapped up into that concept, I can’t be true to the actual initial core of the idea because I think more in terms of thematics than salesmanship. I ended up putting myself in a box again because I made an incredibly offensive movie. So on one hand, it sounds super commercial, but when you actually watch the movie it’s literally minute after minute of racist, sexist, misogynist jokes that are relentless to the end of the film. Every distributor was like, “We can’t do this movie.”

So did the content make Bodied just as tough a sell?

Yes, in fact probably more difficult than Detention actually.

Did Eminem producing it make it any easier?

Yeah, if Eminem didn’t produce it, we would not have a release at all. By Eminem backing it, that’s the reason why it’s at YouTube. If Eminem was not behind this movie, I would have a very expensive home movie that I would show to a handful of my friends.

Even YouTube was skeptical until Eminem was attached?

Well, Eminem was already attached by the time it was there. Just by the experience of watching who was making offers and who wasn’t, all the major distributors were not making offers because literally they would say, “Oh God, I love but my corporate brand will never allow me to buy this movie. How do we release this? We’d get sued or we’d get picketed.” By conjecture, I kind of figured that without Eminem’s name we’d be nowhere.

Even though Adam does face consequences for his words, it didn’t matter? Just the content leading up to that scared people off?

It’s because it’s not a heavy handed lesson. It’s a tricky movie because from the outset it just looks like 8 Mile Part 2. It just looks like here’s another white dude, he’s going to win a bunch of battle raps and he’ll be better at rapping than black guys. That’s what the movie looks like but then when you actually watch the movie, you’re like, “Oh sh*t, it’s something radically different.” But you can’t put that in the marketing. There’s no way to market that without spoiling the movie. [Screenwriter] Alex [Larsen] and I were very conscious that the particular audience that we are trying to speak to, I want an intelligent audience. I want an audience that doesn’t want to be spoonfed all the answers, that you give breathing room for them to discuss it. Ultimately, the movie is not giving you a lesson about anything. The movie is asking a series of question that leaves it open for the audience to debate it and that’s a weird concept in today’s world where you’ve got to have a lesson at the end of every movie.

Fans may wonder why you have a white kid entering this multicultural world, but are you commenting on that very trope?

Yeah, not only are we commenting on that trope, we actually comment about 8 Mile in the middle of the movie self-reflexively. The funny thing is, the question of 8 Mile is not valid today. It was valid when it first came out. The question of 8 Mile was: can a white guy rap? Can a white guy rap at all? That was the questions 8 Mile. Flash forward 16 years later, we know white guys can rap. The question is: should they? Is this cultural appropriation? Are they bullying other people by doing this? What is it like to have a world of battle rap where minorities are already making fun of each other, what happens when you put a privileged white guy into that mix now? Who’s weaponized, who’s been to college, who has a rich dad, who studies iambic pentameter and Russian literature and knows all the poetry and has a huge vocabulary. Does it unbalance that particular world? Again, the movie does not answer this for you. It just throws a question. I’m just being a little naughty quite frankly.

It is about the question of: should one be free to say politically incorrect things? Two years after you made the movie, people are now losing jobs for saying politically incorrect things, either in the present or years ago. Does this relate to Roseanne and James Gunn?

Now remember, the movie was made before all this stuff happened, so the conversation is changing rapidly. It seems to be changing every couple months. I pat myself on the back for asking questions instead of answering them, so the movie is still valid. Imagine if we had taken the form of an absolutist perspective like “no, you should not be able to say this” or “you should be able to say this.” I think depending on the season of the year, the movie could be valid or invalid. Luckily it’s done as a series of debatable questions, a Socratic method if you will.

What are your thoughts on celebrities losing jobs for the things they said?

If you want to ask my deepest personal perception of the world today, I think it’s always dangerous at the end of the day to regulate speech. Theoretically, as an underclass my whole life, I’ve heard tons of negative things said about me as an Asian person. All it did was make me tougher and actually make me better. I’m kind of happy that people made fun of me for being Asian in my early days because I felt it made me a better artist. Now, would I wish that on my kid or anyone else? No, of course not. But, I do think it becomes a little dangerous if we change the algorithm of life, so that we tweak it so it’s being regulated and [people are] fired because at any point the rules may change. One minute you might be Fred Topel, the guy that is a great moral person but you might say one f***ing thing that’s a mistake and then you’re out. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that concept, quite frankly.

Yeah, I’m conflicted about Roseanne because I do think it’s dangerous, the things she was putting out there to the following she had, but she was doing a great show that was good for people that didn’t reflect her terrible values.

Look, it’s complicated. I don’t know if we’re going to have the answers anytime soon but at least we’re having a discussion about it. What is dangerous is all we do is the action with no discussion. That is the worst case scenario.

Isn’t the biggest problem here that Donald Trump has said whatever he wants and faced  no consequences, and has the biggest platform of all?

I’m from Houston, Texas. I’m an Asian kid that grew up in Houston, TX in the ‘80s. I know everything about conservative hypocrisy. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a mantra down there. That’s what’s happening with Trump. He can say whatever he wants, but you have to act in a completely different role or you get judged. That’s unfortunate and the danger of it too. He has all the power now. What if he flipped it? Right now it’s “I can say whatever I want as Trump.” What if he added an addendum, “But you can’t say what you want to say.”

Isn’t that what he’s trying to do, attacking the press?

He’s trying for sure, right? He’s trying to go after the press and all that. That’s why it is so important to have a free press, free speech. These things that the press do are important. At this point, what people don’t realize is free speech and a free press is literally the line in the sand of whether we have a democracy or a dictatorship. Journalists are the last line. If you guys are gone, we’ve got nothing. America does not exist anymore.

One more tangent, your producer Adi Shankar went after The Simpsons for their portrayal of Apu. Should they be protected to keep doing Apu their way since it’s their creative expression?

I have a disagreement with Adi about this. The funny thing is that Adi and I don’t see eye to eye on everything. We see eye to eye on a lot of things. I’m personally not offended by Apu. I’m also not Indian, but for instance, racist Asian caricatures, I generally do not have as much of a personal stake in either. Perhaps it’s because of the really thick yellow skin that’ I’ve had over the years, and also because I have such dark twisted humor as a human being, I’m simply not as offended by cultural tropes. It’s just not in my DNA.

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