The most immediately striking thing about 8 Mile is how ordinary it is. As a big screen debut for controversial rapper Eminem, it is blissfully free of any controversy of its own.
The story is loosely based upon the events of the performer’s formative years. Jimmy Smith Jr (Eminem) is a talented, would-be rapper who chickens out at the microphone when faced with an all-black audience. As he builds up courage, honing his spontaneous, rhyming skills on the streets, he copes with everyday life at the factory (he’s a punch press operator) and at home with his mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger).
Screenwriter Scott Silver has admitted that his original idea – to conceive something as outrageous and provocative as Eminem’s music and media image – was quickly diluted at the request of the producers and record company executives. This project represents the mainstreaming of the star’s persona.
At every point, the effort to tame the Eminem legend is glaringly evident. Homophobia? Not to worry, because here Jimmy leaps to the defence of a token gay buddy, pouring ironic fag-baiting abuse upon the guy who insulted him.
Violence? You can chart the careful course of this movie by the pattern of guns that appear in it. There’s a gun waved but not fired; a gun that only shoots harmless paint; a gun that a foolish chap sticks in his pants, inadvertently causing injury to himself.
Racism? On this plane, the film performs a daring two-step. Eminem’s output is, of course, not racist in the conventional, white-suprematist sense. Indeed, his eagerness to bond with the black brotherhood – here chiefly represented by his best friend, Future (Mekhi Phifer) – leads, if anything, to a glaring residual shame about being merely a white kid.
But 8 Mile tries to dissolve the politics of race altogether. All that matters, it argues, is class. And Jimmy, as far as this movie is concerned, comes from the right, battler side of the tracks.
Only Eminem’s trademark misogyny remains intact. The film’s attitudes towards women are, to say the least, strange. Stephanie is first glimpsed humping a fellow who was once Jimmy’s classmate. She proceeds to make our hero’s life a misery with her wicked, sluttish, irresponsible ways. Only Jimmy, it seems, can truly nurture his neglected sister.
Then there’s Alex (Brittany Murphy), Jimmy’s fleeting love interest. She spots and encourages his talent, and can match him in sassiness; but she is, at base, a heartless opportunist. She’s only in the film to break the hero’s heart and cause him to suffer a little more stoically.
During the 1980s, critics and audiences laughed at tame, mainstream movies about black culture that relied on fanciful rituals like combat dancing to therapeutically work through the tensions of urban life. 8 Mile returns to this brand of artifice with its catch-all dramatic situation: a rap contest, in which the players have 45 seconds to insult each other in colourful ways.
Fans of music-based movies will instantly spot the close kinship between 8 Mile and Prince’s classic Purple Rain (1984). But the differences between them are instructive. Prince’s director Albert Magnoli delightedly exaggerated the funky eccentricity of using non-professional actors, in a shamelessly formulaic tale that harked back to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927).
8 Mile director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992), on the other hand, goes all low-key and solemn when he approaches any approximation of urban realism. The entire movie has a muted, hand-held, nocturnal look. Whenever the camera is not peering at passing street scenes through the windshields of cruising cars, its dramatic scenes seem to be shot in perpetual close-up.
Where Hanson displays his professional chops, however, is in the direction of Eminem. I suspect the star’s range as an actor is not vast. But Hanson draws out of him an intense, focused presence. And there can be no doubt that in the scenes where Eminem gets to do his thing – whether humorously turning “Sweet Home Alabama” into “I’m Living in a Trailer”, or whipping up the crowd in rap-combat mode – he is magnetic.
As compromised as it may be, 8 Mile succeeds in both playing to the fantasies of Eminem’s fans, and intriguing the uninitiated.
MORE Hanson: In Her Shoes
© Adrian Martin January 2003