(2017) Dramedy (NEON/YouTube Premium) Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Jonathan “Dumboundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlamagne Tha God, Dizaster, Debra Wilson, Anthony Michael Hall, Lisa Maley, Eddie Perino, Eric Allen Smith, Candice Renee, Daniel Rashid, Vivian Lamolli, Yves Bright, Corey Charron, Sloane Avery. Directed by Joseph Kahn
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I will try to refrain as much as possible from using hip hop slang which only makes me sound like a middle aged movie critic who has absolutely no understanding of the culture or the language. You’re welcome.
Once in awhile a movie will come along whose subject holds no interest for me and I’ll give it a pass when the opportunity comes along to view it. After all, realistically speaking there are only so many movies that anyone can see in a week, even a reviewer. All of us are forced to pick and choose somewhat, making room for movies we figure are either important or hold some interest for us. I’m not a big fan of rap – it just doesn’t speak to me personally – and a movie about battle rap, as this one is, held no interest for me. However, a colleague recommended this film so enthusiastically that when the publicist approached with a screener link I gave in and said okay, not really expecting much.
Mea culpa. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This movie is as entertaining as anything you’ll see during this busy season for movies. Worthy plays the somewhat unfortunately named Adam Merkin, a grad student at Berkeley who is doing his English Literature master[s thesis on the use of the “N” word in battle rap. He takes his uptight feminist Vegan girlfriend Maya (Uphold) to a rap battle, explaining to her (and to us) what’s going on and the various terms which is an ingenious way of using the terminology so that everyone can understand it – and they do use a lot of it.
Adam interviews Behn Grymm (Long), a master battle rapper who finds Adam’s genuine enthusiasm amusing and for giggles sets up the nerdy ginger up for a parking lot post-battle battle with a wannabe named Billy Pistolz (Charron). After a weak start, Adam suddenly finds the confidence to absolutely destroy his foe which he finds invigorating and eventually cell phone footage of his win is discovered by a promoter who signs up the youngster in a try-out battle against an L.A. Korean rapper named Prospek (Park) and Adam wins that too, gaining the respect of his opponent and other battle rappers like Che Corleone (Perez) and Devine Write (Shandai). It’s a feeling he is not used to never having gotten much respect in his life.
As he continues to rap, his repertoire includes increasingly homophobic, misogynist and racist slurs – all perfectly acceptable within battle rap but at Berkeley the student body and administration have a collective coronary and soon he finds himself persona non grata even with his own father (Hall) who teaches there. Nonetheless YouTube fame and respect are a heady mixture and Adam begins to change radically – or is this the person he has always been but has kept submerged?
The writing here is phenomenal. Eminem, who is a producer here, isn’t spared; during one meta moment (and there are several) a group of battle rappers discuss the Detroit star and his movie and let’s just say they’re none too charitable. Liberal white guilt is skewered here as charges of “cultural appropriation” are thrown about like fish at Pike’s Place Market. Berkeley liberals are shown to be none too tolerant here and there’s some truth in that, sad to say.
Then again, rap culture seems to get a pass. Within a rap battle, anything goes – you can say what you want about a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight, appearance, anything at all – and you get a pass particularly if you’re black. Behn Grymm explains to Adam that certain aspects of black culture are off-limits for him because he’s white. There will be those who will call that a double standard and they’re not wrong, although the reasons for it are not unjustified either. It’s pretty thoughtful stuff for a comedy in which when battle rappers make “gun hands” at their opponents, animated smoke comes out of their fingers and faux gunshots are heard on the soundtrack. However, the filmmakers are also unafraid to test our own preconceptions about battle rappers; most of them have jobs, none of them are broke (except college student Adam) and one of them turns out to be a middle class computer game programmer with a nice house and a beautiful family.
Worthy, best known for his work on American Vandal on Netflix, gives a star performance here. He is perfectly cast, a skinny and nonthreatening redhead who shows some teeth later in the movie once he’s been pushed to the limit and essentially abandoned by those closest to him. It’s a powerful performance but Worthy shows a light touch when he needs to.
I have to admit some of the digs at women, Asians, plus size people, Hispanics, and yes, white people did make me a little bit uncomfortable. I guess that’s my own liberal guilt at work. Still, I found this movie to be smart, insightful and extremely funny in places. I still am not a rap fan but I am living proof you don’t have to be to really enjoy this movie – although it helps enormously – but certainly those who love the music will likely want to see this forthwith.
The movie is the first to be picked up by the YouTube Premium channel for theatrical release which is handled by the indie company that also distributed the Oscar-winning I, Tonya for a brief theatrical run. It will also be available on YouTube Premium at the end of the month. Whether you see it online or in a theater, by all means see it. You won’t be sorry.
REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. Worthy is perfectly cast. Those unfamiliar with battle rap won’t get hopelessly lost.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the less savory aspects of battle rap are cast in a more flattering light than they should be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, some drug use, sexual content, brief nudity and a heaping helping of racial slurs, homophobic slurs and misogynistic slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Alex Larson is a veteran battle rapper, going by the name of Kid Twist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Can You Ever Forgive Me?