Last week, Joseph Kahn summoned the wrath of the Beyhive down upon himself — and not just once but repeatedly. For the average person online, drawing the enraged attention of one of the internet's most devoted and formidable fandoms is something to be feared and avoided at all costs. But the 44-year-old Korean-American filmmaker didn't just goad Beyoncé stans into attack with taunts about their inability to do real damage and quips to the press destined to immediately be taken out of context, he greeted the influx of bee emojis and tweeted insults like Lieutenant Dan howling defiance at a hurricane.
Or maybe just like a director with a new movie to promote. "To be honest, I did it on purpose," Kahn admitted over coffee in Toronto, referring to his campaign of strategic hive-poking and the resulting media coverage. And, he pointed out, it worked. "Everyone knows Bodied now. You can make a good film, but if you throw it out into a vacuum, the air does not get in there. The only thing people care about these days is celebrity. My movie has no stars. So all you have to do is know how to rattle the internet cage."
Bodied, which was the opening night pick of the Toronto International Film Festival's beloved Midnight Madness program, is Kahn's first film in six years, one he wrote with battle rapper Alex Larsen, aka Kid Twist. Altogether, Kahn's made three films, including 2004's self-aware Fast and the Furious-but-with-motorcycles riff Torque, and the 2011 teen-comedy-slasher genre mashup Detention, which, like Bodied, he funded himself. But the reason he's so well-acquainted with the world of dedicated pop fandoms is because it's the entity in which he spends most of his time. He's best known as a prominent, prolific, perpetually outspoken music video director who, since launching his career in the early ’90s, has worked with everyone from Muse to Destiny's Child, Britney Spears to Dr. Dre. And, of course, with Taylor Swift.
Since 2015, Swift has been the music artist with whom Kahn's career has been most closely linked. It's a connection boosted, in part, by Kahn's willingness to wade into the online fray in defense of the seemingly eternally embattled pop star (it's in talking about Swift that Kahn is most careful with his words, describing her as an "excellent target"). Kahn has directed five music videos for Swift, including the monster that is "Blank Space" (2.16 billion views and counting) and late August's internet-breaker "Look What You Made Me Do." He was still slugging it out on behalf of the latter, an intensely parsed and much-discussed video in which Swift contends with her past personas, in the days leading up to the Bodied premiere.
Kahn obviously isn't afraid of controversy or a fight. At a time when people working in Hollywood have gotten increasingly cautious about their online presences, he's maintained one of most markedly salty, trolly Twitter feeds of any filmmaker working today. (Illustrative sample: "I just gotta remind everyone that my twitter has only one message. Fuck you.") These facts are even more crystal clear when watching Bodied, which stars former Disney Channel actor Calum Worthy and actual battle rappers like Dumbfoundead and Dizaster, and is a button-pushing comedy that uses the underground hip-hop scene as a way to tackle language wars, cultural appropriation, and freedom of speech.
But if that pitch sounds like the ramp-up to the kind of potential nightmare 4chan apologia you'd want to run away from, screaming, the reality of Bodied is a lot more conflicted, considered, overstuffed with ideas, and yes, sometimes, even sensitive. It’s a film that argues on behalf of the right to say anything while simultaneously emphasizing how much words can wound. "This film has a lot of issues in it, and I'm not dismissing any of them," Kahn said. "In fact, one of the things we're trying to figure out is, in the world of absolute free speech, is there a limit? Is there a consequence to going too far? I wanted to explore the furthest reach of that."
Bodied was produced by Eminem, another artist Kahn's directed videos for, and a man who famously got his start in the freestyle rap battle scene. But while Eight Mile gets name-checked in Bodied, the film primarily owes its existence to a Swift controversy. More specifically, it was born out of the one kicked up by the video Kahn did for "Wildest Dreams," shot in part in the Serengeti and meant to evoke a location shoot for an old Hollywood production à la The African Queen, with Swift and Scott Eastwood playing actors whose onscreen romance bleeds into real life.
Kahn was aware there were, to use his word, "complexities" to this concept from the start — plenty of shit in which to step. These included concerns as to whether the video would accidentally make it look like Swift was out to shoot lions instead of a film, and whether she'd be accused of "whitewashing history and ignoring segregation" if Kahn cast a black actor to play the director of the fictional feature, as was his original impulse. These considerations failed to dampen the firestorm of arguments the video set off about whether Swift was romanticizing colonization and erasing Africans from the African setting. Kahn wasn't having it.
"I started making jokes about it. I had one joke where I said, 'Asians can't be racists. Black or white, all dogs taste the same to us.' Paper magazine wrote an entire hit piece on me talking about how I don't do videos for minorities, which is absurd, because I've done 30 years of music videos and half of them are hip-hop." Eventually, he said, the furor became an inspiration. "I thought, this is insane — no matter what I write or what I say, they just want to be social media bullies. And the nature of even talking about race is so constricted behind the accusation, and not over the analysis, and I thought, Wow, there's a movie."
Which is where battle rap came in. "There's an anger in me, and it only seemed to be expressed by a world where a white guy and a black guy could make completely racist jokes against each other, worse than anything I've ever written, and then they go get a beer together," Kahn explained. But in addition to its particular hip-hop scene, Bodied also keeps one foot on campus, where woker-than-thou characters are shown trying to one-up each other in circular conversations about race, gender, class, and privilege. One of the most provocative ideas the film floats is that the vocabulary of social justice has been co-opted for verbal one-upmanship just as competitive as battle rap.
"I feel sometimes like when people who can't outsmart me online, they'll just go back to my old tweets and say, 'Look, he's racist, don't listen to him.' It's dirty play," Kahn says. "They don't know me. They're just taking jokes, and saying that all stereotyped jokes are racist, which I genuinely do not believe. A joke is a contradiction you agree with. Just because the contradiction is dangerous doesn't mean you don't agree with it." Kahn sees Bodied as embracing that sense of danger, while acknowledging that the intersection he's been occupying between an incendiary indie movie and young music fandom can be "messy and ugly."
But also, maybe, advantageous? Bodied, which was well-received at TIFF, has yet to cement a distributor, but Kahn's been tweeting about getting multiple offers. And certainly, for Kahn, all the attention didn't hurt in getting to this place, even if so much of it was angry. "I don't think it really means much," he said of the online uproar. "I think, on one level, it's just blowing up the pop stan world," which then becomes a conduit to draw more promotion of his film work, especially when it comes to his already infamous LA Times interview in which he joked, "Beyoncé copied 'Bad Blood.'" "How many indie films get linked hundreds of times in an interview with a filmmaker talking about race?" he pointed out. Then, not one to resist, he added, "Thank you, Beyhive."
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at email@example.com.
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