“One asks the question, ‘Can a white guy rap?’ The other asks the question, ‘Should a white guy rap?’”
Director Joseph Kahn is talking about the difference between 8 Mile, Eminem’s semiautobiographical drama, and Bodied, his new satire about a white grad student’s foray into battle rap, which Eminem produced. These are questions that Kahn believes viewers can answer for themselves, but really, his inclination on speech of any kind is to allow it — even if it offends. After 25 years at the top of the music-video-and-commercial business — and a few features, like the speed-crazy Torque and the meta-horror comedy Detention, that fall under the banner of cult appreciation — Kahn feels secure enough to speak freely, even if that’s occasionally landed him in trouble on social media, where he’s run afoul of Beyoncé fans, Kim Kardashian fans, BTS fans, and fans of pit bulls, the volatile dog breed that’s become an almost daily obsession on his Twitter feed.
Written by Alex Larsen, more popularly known as Kid Twist, Bodied is Kahn’s attempt to bring his flair for provocation into a hip-hop arena where anything goes. And he’s found the whitest guy possible to be our guide to that world: Calum Worthy, a veteran of Disney Channel and ABC Family shows, who plays Adam Merkin, a progressive-minded master’s student writing his thesis on battle rap. He attaches himself to battle-rap champion Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), who winds up turning from subject to mentor as Adam himself discovers a hidden talent for spitting bars. Adam’s rise through the battle-rap circuit horrifies his feminist girlfriend (Rory Uphold) and ignites accusations of cultural appropriation and racism on campus, and even he has trouble controlling his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation when he hits the stage.
Khan has made a comedy that even he believes is 100 percent offensive, but Bodied is a film that also understands the power of words and how it’s possible to cross the line and hurt people. It’s also the caffeinated pop entertainment one might expect from the director of videos by Taylor Swift (“Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Look What You Made Me Do”), Britney Spears (“Toxic,” “Stronger”), Eminem (“Love the Way You Lie,” “Without Me”), Katy Perry (“Waking Up in Vegas”), Lady Gaga (“Love Game”), and many others. As divisive as the film surely will be, it also picked up the Audience Award in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Vulture caught up with Kahn to talk about the film’s long journey to theaters, “offense culture,” Megyn Kelly’s firing, and why he’s not worried about being “canceled.”
It’s been over a year since Bodied was at TIFF and won the Midnight Madness Audience Award, but we’re only seeing it now. What happened in between? What are the distribution barriers between a movie that people seem to really like and what companies believe is viable for commercial release?
I think we have a very difficult film ahead of us to release. It took awhile just to get the ducks in order. One of the biggest reasons why it took a year is that YouTube wanted to partner up with somebody and actually do their first theatrical release. That’s how strongly they felt that it’s a theatrical experience, and I agree with them.
In what ways do you think it is challenging? Is it about a cast that maybe people don’t know or is it about the material itself?
Well, let’s face it. How do you get people into a theater these days? If you do an indie movie, the vast majority of them have to have a movie star in it that they’ve seen in a superhero movie at some point, so you get that particular crowd. There’s a lefty intelligentsia version of it where it’s a movie that’s maybe Brad Pitt produced and it’s anti-slavery or something like that, an easy message for everybody to get around. For the vast majority of people, movies are expensive. I feel like much of the audience doesn’t want to waste their money, so they’ll take safe bets. They may not actually want to see a superhero movie, but they know they’re going to get a certain value for their money, a proposition by Warner Bros. that you will come in here and if you saw one building get knocked down last time, you’ll see two buildings get knocked down this time.
When you have something like a film about battle-rap subculture that no one knows about, with actors no one has practically heard of, from the director of Torque, it’s like, “What is this movie? What am I putting my money into?” It’s a risk for somebody. Now, I think it’s a fantastic risk. I think it’s like literally buying a lottery ticket and winning it if you’re an audience member. Just getting people to buy that lottery ticket is going to be a tricky proposition.
You have to have a lot of faith in yourself. This film is largely self-financed, right?
One-hundred percent self-financed. I took out loans and just financed it myself.
Was there any thought of it doing it any other way?
Are you kidding me? Is there any way to make this movie through a studio system? Do you know how many notes I would get? Forget about saying the N-word, forget about saying the F-word, forget about any Asian jokes. Look, we were supposed to release the trailer to this weeks ago, and it kept getting kicked back by upper management, because literally everyone is afraid of pissing off some particular group or another. So even as funny as the trailer is, it is, like, nothing. It shows you basically nothing of the movie.
Isn’t there a selling point to that, though? The film is about speaking to taboo issues and saying things that people want said but can’t say.
I don’t know about the marketing aspect of it, but I do know the truth of the movie. It is my hard-core belief that people find differences funny. You can call it sexist, you can call it racist, you can call it misogynist, you can call it homophobic, you can call it anti-Asian, whatever it is — bottom line, deep down underneath the human condition is this thing that makes you laugh when you see something different from you. It’s undeniable that it exists. It’s undeniable no matter what happens, no matter how much we try to tell each other that we’re politically correct, and we will never laugh at an offensive joke. That’s bullshit. People find differences funny. In a truthful society, people can often joke about those differences.
Here’s the sort of philosophical perspective that I came up with after making this movie. I didn’t have it when I first made the movie, but in retrospect, this is where I’ve come to. Human beings are predators. There’s not 7 billion of us because we got along with the animals and we got along with trees, no matter how much my friend Moby says that. The reality is there’s 7 billion of us because we are the ultimate weapons that have destroyed everything in our path to take the resources and give that energy to our progeny and just spread. We own the Earth. We’re the ultimate predator on the planet. Now as predators, we’ve created this thing called “civilization,” in quotes, and ultimately, no matter what we call civilization, it works on one fundamental thing. That thing is we don’t kill each other. If you kill each other, you don’t have a civilization. Right? All that means is that a group of people have decided to share resources in a way that they don’t kill each other, and that’s called civilization. When two civilizations get next to each other and clash, that’s called a war, or a battle, or murder, or whatever you want to call it. The stasis point of civilization is you don’t kill each other. You try to find commonalities not to kill each other, but at some point, when two people have a difference, you’re going to do one of two things: You’re either going to say, I accept those differences or I’m going to kill you over those differences because I don’t trust you.
Battle rap is the actual testing of those differences. It’s literally going face-to-face saying, “You’re different than me. Here are all your differences. I’m going to laugh at your differences. Here are all my differences. I’m going to laugh about it.” You come to a conclusion where somebody wins over who had the right perspective on each other’s differences. That is literally the act of forming a civilization.
One of the interesting ideas expressed in the battle-rap sequences is how you can these guys going at each other as hard as they can, saying the meanest things they can think of, but when it’s over, they can say, “Respect.” That’s doesn’t often happen outside this arena.
Yeah, but there’s a funny, interesting thing in terms of conflict. Even in your normal human society, sometimes you don’t become really good friends with somebody until you have a really good conflict with them, a really good discussion of your differences. Up until then, I feel like most friendships are based on a certain cordiality, and you become, like, partial friends. But until you have that good spit-out argument with a girl, she can’t become your wife. You know? You don’t marry the person that you’ve never had an argument with. You marry the person that you’ve survived an argument with, and if you’ve never argued with your wife, you’re a robot. [Laughs.]
Or you’re living with unspoken tensions or resentments that are just not on the table.
It’s funny about the politeness of American society, and by American society, you’re essentially talking about white society as the basis point. There’s a sort of Waspy politeness. Sometimes I feel the anti-racism isn’t necessarily that you’re not racist, it’s that there’s a cultured white politeness that it’s simply not mannered to be racist openly, but you can do it privately. Adi Shankar, one of the producers of this movie, actually had a great short-story idea. He wanted to make the ultimate white person short film or movie. You’d have a family eating in silence for two hours, and at the end of it the daughter looks at the mother and goes, “I hate you.” Cut to black. The end.
So back to Bodied. How did the idea develop and what was that impulse that led you and Kid Twist to make this movie now?
I was getting really annoyed by offense culture.
Where people are just offended by each other and they’re picking each other apart and dog-piling each other, especially on social media. There’s radicalism in terms of trying to find out who’s offending who and what tribe you’re in and literally trying to dictate the terms of how you can speak to each other. If anyone follows my Twitter, they know I say whatever I want, and I get in trouble all the time, but I’m also like that in my real life. I tend to say whatever’s on my mind, and people might think I’m an asshole, but they also know I don’t mean any harm and ultimately I’m just being honest. I’m letting you know who I am, what I think, and we can talk about it.
But that seems to be going away from society bit by bit by bit, to the point that when you push people into being silent, the only people who are going to speak are not necessarily the people with good ideas. It’s the people with the terrible ideas, like the right-wingers or the super left wing. It seems like the only two people now speaking are people on extreme political spectrums, and the middle is just quiet now, and I think that’s dangerous.
So I wanted to make a movie that addressed that, to almost simulate that particular experience. Battle rap seemed to be it, because in battle rap, it’s the one place I can see where a white guy and a black guy go and battle each other, say the most racist things, and get a beer together. I thought that was such an interesting experience to have versus the other version where people say that they’re not racist and don’t say anything and nothing’s being spoken.
One of the subjects the film raises to that regard is speech on college campus. When a clip of Adam goes viral, he gets protested for the things he says — which, in the context of a battle rap, are not nearly as bad as they sound. Because if you understand that culture and you understand what people are supposed to do in that environment, those words don’t mean the same thing they would disconnected from that setting. The question ends up being, where do you draw the line? And what do you when it’s the other end, when you have, say, far-right or white-supremacist speakers being chased off campus? Where are the lines drawn with regards to speech?
That’s a question that Bodied asks. Obviously we don’t necessarily answer it, because as much as I’m a free-speech absolutist, I also recognize that words can hurt and there are lines in the sand. I will definitely say that those particular parameters of where the line is drawn are extremely contextual, on a one-to-one basis, on a personal basis. You can’t just blanket anything. Adam makes a bunch of racist jokes throughout the movie to win battles, but you can see that a lot of his opponents are doing the same thing back to him, and so they kind of accept those terms. Even though they may not like it, and he may not like it, at a certain point, they know that’s the rules of the battle. But you’ll see in the later half of the movie, there’s a particular agreed-upon term that was set there, and Adam betrays it. At that point, you suddenly realize that whatever he’s doing, it’s no longer about free speech. He’s literally sacrificing his friendship and civility to win a battle. To this day, a lot of battle rappers will watch this movie and say, “Well, you know what? I don’t care that they had a pact. The rules of battle rap say that you can do that.” Others will say, “I would knock him out and I would kill that kid if he did that to me.” In real life, if battle rappers can’t even agree on the battle rap, imagine how that applies to the greater world in general.
How much time have you spent in this world?
I mean, way more than you.
Yeah, definitely more than me.
But not as much as a battle rapper. Somewhere in between.
Have you been present for this kind of tension that went beyond what was expected?
Having known a lot of battle rappers now and known them personally, I’ve seen actual tensions arise and actual beefs and lines that were crossed. In terms of actually witnessing a battle that got there, those things are actually very rare, in terms of good battles that are historically interesting. They’re online. You can watch Illmac vs. the Saurus. You can watch Lux vs. Calicoe. Watch Pat Stay vs. Hollohan. There are some really gritty things that are captured forever on film where you can see people crossing lines. The trick is that sometimes you’ll see two people go at it and they’re being really personal but they’re really terrible rappers. Those don’t count. It’s when they’re really formidable rappers and they really know what to do with the words that they’re meaningful. 99.99 percent of battle raps are trash.
You’ve been touring different cities with this film, almost like a rock show. Have you gotten blowback as well?
There’s always going to be blowback. Not to toot my own horn, but we’ve won a ton of film festival awards and audience awards, which means they voted. We’ve got what I’ve been told is the only standing ovation ever at Fantastic Fest. You can actually hear it in the audience viscerally how they laugh on different lines. But in terms of blowback, yeah, absolutely. It’s almost inevitably somebody that thinks that 90 percent of the fucking movie is funny as hell but 10 percent of it is too offensive for them to like it. And I wonder, like, the other 90 percent is not offensive? It’s 100 percent offensive! The fact that you’re only registering your part is offensive is so myopic, and it’s not a good criticism from my point of view.
How do you handle that kind of intensity? You’re on social media, you’re on Twitter, you’ve been the subject of fan campaigns to ban you for some of the things you’ve said. As someone who likes to speak his mind, do you worry about being canceled? Do you worry about how this might affect your ability to continue to work?
Um, no. I just don’t.
Why is that?
Because I kind of work outside the system. My brand is, at this point, to be provocative, which is really funny because I’m Mr. Pop Director Guy. People also know that I’m the guy that released Power/Rangers and Detention and say outrageous things online. I think people now know that whenever they see any of my work, it’s a mystery. They have no idea what I’m going to do next. When people beg me to do a video, they have zero clue as to what that video will be. If I do a movie, they didn’t know the movie that I’d do after Power/Rangers and Detention would be a battle-rap movie. So I’ve luckily put myself in a place where I’m autonomous from the judgment call of what people expect me to be, because there is no expectation other than I don’t want you to expect anything.
In terms of the offensive nature of what I say, I truly don’t believe that I ever say anything offensive. I believe that I may make a joke here and there. I may make a political criticism. But nothing I do is really mean-hearted, and a lot of the overreactions — it’s on them, not me. Quite frankly, and here’s the other thing I’ve actually really realized, a good chunk of the offense is coming from teenagers, who’ve been taught over many, many years to be offended. It’s literally the new culture of teens. Just as much as when you’re in high school, there’s a bullying factor going on. As much as they’re trying to bully each other not to bully, the reactive nature of what you see on social media is actually teenagers and tweens dog-piling on people. That’s what happens in high school. When you’re my age, you can’t be bullied. I couldn’t give a fuck. They definitely do it to each other, and they’re definitely trying to bully anybody. When they do it to a 15-year-old girl, that girl can be driven to suicide and all this other stuff. They try to do it to a 45-year-old man, it doesn’t mean anything.
So you’re saying you really don’t have much to worry about in terms of gatekeepers? You look at James Gunn and see how ancient tweets of his were brought up by people who didn’t like his politics. Now he’s off a franchise that made billions of dollars for the studio.
Yeah, but he found work again. That’s the thing. At the end of the day, if that next franchise makes billions of dollars, then that was a bad corporate decision. The bottom line is he’s working again. I would rather live in a world where free speech exists and censorship is not forcing everybody to essentially live in a totalitarian society mandated by arbitrary rules that are floating around — as we know, context is hard to define — than one in which free speech exists and ideas are passed back and forth so that we can actually figure out what people are actually saying. I do not want to live in a world where speech is mandated. I’m an absolutist about this. I do not like Trump, I do not like the right wing, but let them speak. Debate them.
You’re in your 40s now. You’ve been immersed in the pop world for a long time. How do you keep up with youth culture? How do you anticipate where things are going? How do you stay current?
I don’t know if I’ve ever stayed current, to be honest with you. I don’t know if that’s ever been my particular agenda. I just have natural curiosities. Bodied isn’t necessarily me trying to stay current per se. It’s just a topical thing. I’m just an average human being interacting with the world and everybody feels the world where you’re now super-careful in 2018 of what you say, because you can get fired over literally saying one thing. Megyn Kelly just got fired because she said, “What’s wrong with blackface?”
Do you think she should’ve been fired for that?
No! Absolutely not! I’m sorry.
Because it was an opinion. She apologized.
She should have perhaps known …
… that it carries with it a pretty huge …
But you know what? I think that white people have this annoying thing they do — and I’m not white, I’m an Asian person — it’s the culture of low expectations. They think that other people are so inferior on some weird cultural level, that they have so much power in their words, that one thing can trigger them and they have the entire burden of civilization on their shoulders. She said one thing, it was really fucking stupid, she apologized for it, fuck off, and if she does it again a couple times, then absolutely. Everybody’s allowed to make a goddamn mistake, and I don’t care how bad it is, it’s one mistake and she recognized it. But to be so penalizing over one comment, that’s a dangerous place for society to be in. I am sorry. I do not agree with her. I don’t think people should be wearing blackface. However, to have a wrong, uninformed opinion that gets corrected and apologized over, to get fired over it after the apology, what world are we living in?
Roseanne, same deal?
Same deal. And Rosie O’Donnell has made ching-chong jokes in the past. The reality is, there will be differences between people, and if we don’t have the space to make mistakes over those differences and to discuss them, the contextual rules of this are hidden, and that is a dangerous place for society to be in. At that point, what’s going to happen is that it is human nature to have resentful feelings about things like that. There will be an entire branch of people that do not understand what is happening. They just feel bullied into having a politically correct opinion. I hate to be the guy that says this, but that’s how you get right-wingers coming out saying all these offensive things, and then people going, “Yes, absolutely, I agree, finally someone is saying what I’m thinking.” But they’re not thinking. They’re just saying. There’s a difference between saying something and thinking something. They’re just saying things, and because people haven’t been thinking, they just grasp onto it, and it feels like a thought, but it’s not. It’s just racist commentary all of a sudden. That’s why I feel like a movie like Bodied, where people are actually saying really crazy things to each other, but then you have to think about it, that’s a healthier experience than just telling someone, “You can’t say that.”
Because everything is just out in the open and you can actually …
Everything’s out in the open and it’s actually being discussed. The way that we’re doing the Megyn Kelly thing, what a wonderful discussion that just happened over blackface. What a wonderful thing she gave to society. She’s an asshole for it, but what a wonderful thing that now all of a sudden you can go to your kids and say, “Well, that’s blackface,” and what is it, how does it work, and all that contextual stuff. We’re just supposed to accept that without actually having an experiential feeling about it? No. What a horrible way to deal with that particular issue.
It seems like we’re in two different worlds with the left and the right, where the right seems completely unwilling to police themselves on anything, even outright white supremacy, while the left, as we’ve discussed, can be extremely sensitive culturally. How do you reconcile those two worlds? How do you live in a country where have almost two separate cultures that are that far apart and don’t really interact at all?
Well, that’s what the First Amendment is for. Okay? The mistake of any of these arguments is that you circumvent the First Amendment. The right hops onto it in a lazy way, saying, “We have the right to say racist things,” and the response from the left is, “You can’t say that, it’s immoral, and we don’t care about the First Amendment.” The left will lose that argument. The way to counteract it is to say, “Yes, you have the right to say that, now let’s debate you.” Period. That’s it. There’s no other way to confront this. You must debate. If you hate Ben Shapiro and you think he’s an idiot, take your best intellectual, throw him up there, and defeat him. It can be done. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro debate religion, and as many times as Ben Shapiro has made a bunch of really funny statements about Black Lives Matter and things like that, when it came to religion, Sam Harris knows what he’s talking about, and I thought he wiped the floor with this guy. [Shapiro] looked like an idiot. All you need is a version of that with another intellectual debating these people. Don’t try to silence them. Show how terrible their arguments are.