8 Mile Review
Read an alternative review by Eamonn McCusker (Region 2 DVD)
There's been a lot of speculation about 8 Mile, a movie starring and inspired by the life of white rapper Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem. Reactions to the star are violently mixed. His music is too profane for some and too commercial for others. Media coverage has centred on the more lurid stuff like his bad boy Slim Shady persona, the chainsaw in his stage act and the lawsuits from family members while commentary has ranged from the usual "downfall of civilisation" rhetoric in the tabloids to over-enthusiastic broadsheet critics rhapsodising about the poetry of his lyrics. To me, a white, English thirtysomething whose exposure to hip hop comes mainly from trying to guess the blanked-out words in the sanitised radio and video edits, Eminem sounds like a fiery stand-up comic. Like Lenny Bruce, he uses shock and foul language to make you laugh and make a point. There's a lot of anger in his act but he's intelligent, self-aware and sometimes extremely funny.
There was a great deal of surprise when Curtis Hanson, the acclaimed director of LA Confidential and Wonder Boys, signed on to make this. Was he slumming for the money or was it evidence that Eminem wanted to make a real movie? Early buzz was strong and went as far as suggesting that Mr Mathers should have a tux ready for Oscar night. Now the film is finally here and, whether or not you like 8 Mile, it's no Elvis picture - it's a sincere and ambitious drama that captures ghetto life in the big American cities as vividly as any mainstream movie yet.
Set in downtown Detroit, it casts Eminem as Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, a young man still living in a trailer with his mother (Kim Basinger) and little sister. Rabbit works long hours in a factory and lives for the evenings when he crosses 8 Mile, a road which marks the unofficial dividing line between the white and black working class communities. Rabbit loves hip hop and aspires to be a rapper himself, hanging out in the clubs and trying to make contacts in the industry. While some blacks resent this intrusion into their territory by a white "tourist", his circle of mostly black friends accept him as one of their own.
Future (Mekhi Phifer), who MCs at a club, sees great talent in Rabbit and pushes him to perform in public, something that terrifies him. In the opening scene, he freezes onstage during a battle with a rival rapper - a contest in which the two participants improvise rhymes to insult each other. His ego bruised, Rabbit decides his best shot lies with his fast-talking friend Wink (Eugene Byrd), who promises he can get him studio time to record a demo.
Eminem's performance is what most people will be wondering about and he's perfect, making Rabbit a resentful cauldron of attitude, anger and fear from which his talent must somehow break free. At the film's climax, when Rabbit goes back onstage to battle his rivals, Eminem makes the scene truly exhilarating. I can't see the Oscars honouring him, simply because it's not their style, but it wouldn't be a travesty if they did. Whether he can play anything other than himself is anyone's guess. Prince was perfect for Purple Rain, another semi-autobiographical film which this resembles in some ways, but he failed in every subsequent film project he took on.
This isn't just the Eminem show. Curtis Hanson specialises in ensemble dramas with large casts and he surrounds his star with a lot of well-drawn supporting characters who are given room to breathe. Besides Phifer and Byrd, memorable performances include Brittany Murphy as wannabe model Alex, Evan Jones as Rabbit's buddy Cheddar Bob, and Kim Basinger, who all but disappears into her role as Rabbit's earthy trailer-park mother. Given the history between Eminem and his real mother, summed up in the bitter lyrics to "Cleaning Out My Closet", Basinger's character is treated with surprising sympathy.
Hanson gives the film a remorselessly cold and gritty look and directs with an in-your-face style which projects you into Rabbit's squalid world, like it or not. The only false moment comes when Rabbit defends a gay co-worker from homophobic taunts. Eminem has been protested in America for gay-bashing, a charge he denies and this scene looks like it was thrown in to support his case. Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver look understandingly but unflinchingly at their characters and see them for what they really are, overgrown boys living a fantasy life and using their dreams of celebrity as an excuse to put their real lives on hold. They talk and talk but rarely do anything.
Hip hop movies are sometimes guilty of glamourising the "gangsta" lifestyle, even when they aren't trying to. There's no chance of that here. Hanson's gangstas live with their parents in hovels in the freezing ghettos of Detroit, work demoralising jobs if they work at all and drive cars that barely start. The only time one of Rabbit's crew pulls a gun, he shoots himself in the leg and ends up on crutches. On the surface, this is the story of how Rabbit finds the confidence to rap onstage and let his talent develop. Underneath it's about how he realises the life he's living is sapping his soul and his only chance is to leave it behind. 8 Mile resonates with his frustration.