January 01, 2006


Tour of Force
Eminem Brings Working Class Grit To Hollywood
By Cole Smithey

Eight_mileAs unlikely as an insightful film about a poor white Detroit kid succeeding beyond his surroundings through Rap music might be, "8 Mile" is that gloriously gritty movie.

Director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") brings to life "8-Mile's" social realism like an American version of British director Mike Leigh. The fictional script by Scott Silver ("Mod Squad") draws lightly on Rap-music- wild-child Eminem's quick journey from Detroit's racial black and white dividing line called "8 Mile" to stupefying success in music's mass marketplace. The story stays small and condensed, focusing in on Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith's ("Eminem"- Marshall Mathers) struggle to make his unique voice heard above the din of rival freestyle rappers in a world where he is unwelcome.


Outstanding performances from its ensemble cast of supporting actors gives clarity to the film's scrupulously realized depiction of Detroit's rap-infused environment circa 1995.  

With an atypical six-week rehearsal period, Hanson approached the film as an ensemble piece where character interaction springs from the actors’ intuitive subconscious. Layers of subtlety are present throughout the movie right down to a sex scene between Rabbit and Alex (Brittany Murphy) that has audiences yelling at the screen for Rabbit to pull out before he cums inside the girl. It's that heightened level of intimacy that Hanson engages his audience in regardless of their familiarity with rap music or any predisposition they may have to Eminem.

Rabbit is a talented but shy rapper living in a trailer home with his
irresponsible mother (played brilliantly by Kim Basinger) and his young daughter. When he isn't working at a car plant stamping out bumpers, Rabbit scribbles down ideas to use in his raps while listening to a drone of rhythm on headphones forever hanging at the ready around his neck. At the film's start, Rabbit hasn't yet quelled his stage fright and is prone to going mute on the microphone in front of large crowds. This internal personal conflict sets up the dramatic arc of the movie.

8 mile
Rabbit hangs out with a crew of loyal supporters led by Future (Mekhi Phifer) who hosts a weekly rap battle at a fluorescent-lit nightclub called "The Shelter." Future would like to be the catalyst who brings Rabbit to the fore of Detroit's Hip-Hop scene, but smooth talking promoter Wink (Eugene Byrd) has Rabbit convinced he can get him connected to music producers who will record his music. 

There's no question that the story closely traces experiences Eminem lived through before he put together his own production company to market his music. Eminem's screen presence, as an actor, is at once unexpected and self-fulfilling. Here, we are introduced to the impossibly young performer as a shadow version of himself in the exact environment that his success exploded from.

Visually, the film is a moody experience for the cloudy, naturally-lit, urban atmospheres of Detroit that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros") captures. Prieto embraces Detroit's oppressive reality as an American city, like so many other U.S. towns, surviving as a shell of its formerly vibrant identity. And so there's an unscripted kind of catharsis built into the movie whereby Detroit comes to life on the big screen.

"8 Mile" functions within the larger scope of Eminem's success as a chapter from a book that the audience is already privy to. As such, the film's open ended finale leaves a gap for the many steps that took Eminem from winning a nightclub rap battle contest to selling millions of records. The theme here is about perseverance under harsh conditions. There will be plenty of detractors harping on "8 Mile" as misrepresenting rap.

There's a prevailing idea that rap's sanctified messages can only truly come from black culture. Personally, I think Chuck Berry was a far more talented musician than any rapper out there. By the same token, I think Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" album sums up white experience in an urban black culture better than any other poet has ever delivered. Reed's monotone delivery is pure rap. But all of that is beside the point. Little people with big dreams are everywhere, trying desperately to find their niche, while keeping their dignity about them. "8 Mile" breathes that particular fire into a cold and hollow space. As any musician knows, music is, above all else, about filling space in metered time.

Rated R. 118 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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