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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
compromised as it may be, 8 Mile succeeds in both playing to the fantasies of Eminem’s fans, and intriguing the
© Adrian Martin January 2003