the year is 1995. Vanilla Ice is nothing more than a pop culture joke, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. are alive, and an intensifying “East Coast/West Coast” rivalry is sending hip-hop albums to the top of the charts. In other words, it’s not quite the right moment for a random white guy from the Midwest to embark on the path to rap superstardom.
Yet seven years later, Detroit native Eminem, née Marshall Mathers III, is outselling artists like Nelly and Jay-Z by millions of records—and polishing five Grammy statuettes in his spare time. Tomorrow’s opening of 8 Mile, the fictionalized biopic of the rapper’s early career, signifies the next step of his campaign for cultural relevance and cross-media domination.
That the film generally succeeds is a testament to Eminem’s talents as a musician, provocateur and hip-hop thespian. Earlier this year, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey proved remarkably unconvincing in roles as aspiring singers; in comparison to his MTV peers, Eminem’s passable portrayal of a white rapper from Detroit qualifies him as a character actor.
Equal credit goes to director Curtis Hanson and producer Brian Grazer for making 8 Mile what the Spears and Carey films failed to be: a moderately engaging, not entirely frivolous portrait of a troubled young musician sculpting an identity out of conflicting ambitions and personal limitations. Also present are a plethora of clichés—condemnations from disapproving loved ones, initial performance anxiety and closing credits that just happen to be accompanied by the musician’s most recent single. Despite all this, 8 Mile capitalizes on its strong supporting cast and top notch production values to differentiate itself from other music-to-movies crossover attempts.
The story itself deals with the frustrations and felonious extracurricular activities of Jimmy Smith, Jr. (Eminem), a factory worker who moves back into his mother’s trailer after breaking up with his girlfriend. Smith, better known as “Rabbit” to his friends and dysfunctional family, dreams of escaping his dead end job and dreary personal life by landing a record deal. To do so, he must overcome his own inhibitions and the intimidation of “Free World,” a group of rival rappers who dominate the local club where Rabbit hopes to perform.
Formulaic though it may be, 8 Mile occasionally steps outside the strictures of its plot to comment on rap, race and class. The movie takes its name from a real road in Detroit which marks the unofficial boundary between the white and black sections of the city. In the film, 8 Mile Road represents the racial barrier Rabbit must overcome to achieve success in a predominantly black art form. For those looking for it, 8 Mile thus doubles as political and cultural commentary, persuasively rebutting the idea that rap can be performed and appreciated exclusively by members of one race.
Of course, this is already a fairly moot point. Eminem himself raps in “White America” that “if I was black, I would have sold half,” defiantly acknowledging that being white has been a key element of his cross-over commercial appeal. 8 Mile imagines a fantasy world in which Rabbit is a member of an oppressed white minority, with a bullying black boss intent on victimizing his conscientious young employee. Cheddar Bob, Rabbit’s only white friend, is a buffoonish poser who accidentally shoots himself in an attempt to prove his “street cred” in a brawl against the “Free World” rappers. The film is also disappointingly conventional in its depiction of sex and race: even as a member of the supposed white minority, it never occurs to Rabbit that he might date anyone outside his race. When Rabbit is betrayed, the treachery takes the form of interracial sex.
Despite these flaws, serious and unfortunate as they are, 8 Mile’s overall message about identity and tolerance is surprisingly fresh. This hardly redeems the film, but at a time when de facto segregation is protocol on MTV and in Hollywood, 8 Mile nevertheless serves as a provocative critique.
Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy
Directed by Curtis Hanson