The way that the films Notorious, 8 Mile, Walk The Line, and Ray lead up to scenes of performances shows the remarkable and subtle endurance of troubling racial stereotypes and ideals.
I’ve done a bad bad thing
Cut my brother in half
—Little Dewey Cox in Walk Hard
The new millenium has been kind to biopics of musicians. We have, most of us, seen the blockbusters, including Walk the Line, Ray, and Notorious, and these have been accompanied by more minor films like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Cadillac Records, and Jenna Maroney’s unforgettable Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jomp-Jomp Story. Some of the recurrent themes of these films, such as drug abuse, became so predictable that they were easily satirized in Walk Hard.
But in thinking about how these films diverge, after finally reaching the (somewhat confused) end of Notorious, I realized that in both the earlier film 8 Mile, the semi-fictional story of Eminem’s life, and in Walk the Line, the white performer comes to a moment of emotional overload that threatens his very ability to get on stage. In Cash’s case, this is because he is re-living his brother’s death; in Eminem’s case, it is because he has to face a hostile, mostly African-American crowd as a white rapper.
By contrast, in their respective films, neither Ray Charles nor Biggie experience this kind of stage fright. Instead, particularly in Notorious, there is an utterly natural transition from the private work of practicing and writing to the public arena of performance. This is even the case despite Ray’s having undergone, like Cash, the death of a brother while very young.