“Soul’s escaping, through this hole that is gaping. / This world is mine for the taking. / Make me king, as we move toward a new world order. / A normal life is boring; but superstardom’s / close to postmortem, it only grows harder.” The lyrics for Eminem’s first single off the 8 Mile soundtrack are as earnest and compelling as anything this gifted mc has written. And the start of the film has as his character, Jimmy Smith Jr. (a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit, B-Rabbit, Rabbit), not even beginning to grasp what’s ahead of him. He jogs in place to Mobb Deep, in a filthy club bathroom, waiting for and dreading his moment on stage. He checks his hood in the mirror, gestures with an “air mic,” then, just as he thinks he might be ready, lurches to the toilet to puke up his dinner.
It only grows harder. And doesn’t Eminem know it. With the release of 8 Mile, Em is everywhere, on the covers of Entertainment Weekly, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine (Frank Rich, of all people, does the honoring inside), as well as an omnipresent range of specials on MTV and BET (Movie House, Jammed, Artist Collection, Biorhythm, Movie Special), not to mention Access Hollywood and AOL’s front page (“Ghetto Boy Meets World”): sign in for the chat and you too can extol the virtues of Hollywood’s new superstar.
Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile takes place before all this ruckus, in a time of prelapserian yearning. In 1995 Detroit, Rabbit is all things righteous: poor but generous, white but self-aware, ambitious but sensitive. Living in a trailer park, working at an auto plant, disrespected by the premiere local crew (apparently ironically called Leaders of the Free World), Rabbit dreams of escape. And yet, at film’s start, Rabbit chokes, says not a word on stage at the Shelter, despite the fact that his boys are in the crowd and his best friend, the ominously/expectantly named Future (Mekhi Phifer) hosts the battles.
Rabbit rides the bus home, humiliated. He’s just left his girlfriend (Gap triller Taryn Manning), and so he’s heading back to his mom’s (Kim Basinger) trailer. There he finds her in mid-sex-act with loutish Ray (Michael Shannon), Rabbit’s own former schoolmate and—most damning—a Skynard fan. (Mom has her own dreams, that Ray will save her when his insurance settlement check comes in, and the film punishes her for her lack of vision and selfishness.) To top off this evening of grisly comedowns, Rabbit has to rescue his angelically blond little sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield), awakened when Ray and Rabbit start fighting.
Thus, just ten minutes into 8 Mile, you pretty much know the score: Rabbit is skinny (Em lost 20 pounds to play him, and looks almost fragile at times), genuinely damaged, morally sound. He’s also prone to violence but with reason, destined (against all odds!) to prevail. Scott (The Mod Squad) Silver’s tired script hardly bothers to develop a character or plot, but why should it? This is movie about myth and mythmaking, in this case, Eminem’s—battle mc, shattered son, loyal ally, good father, artistic genius, and friend to gays. And yes, this last is a stretch: Eminem, so famously phobic, plays Rabbit, so earnestly egalitarian. Rabbit displays initial confidence in his talent by coming to the rescue down at the auto plant: a bully (Xzibit, doing screen-time with his tour-mate) picks on a woman practicing her rap, and then a bystanding homosexual; Rabbit steps up with impressive and enlightened wordplay (the bully is the “faggot”), so endearing himself to Gay Man that when he needs a favor a few scenes later, Gay Man’s got his back.
Such fictionalizing ensures Eminem’s lovability, across all categories (the Voice this week titles his phenom “Crossover Dream”). More significantly, it lays bare the processes and functions of popular myth. Rabbit/Eminem’s story is premised on the inherent probity of poverty, at least as it’s coupled with whiteness; tellingly, the black local champion lyricist and Rabbit’s chief nemesis, Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie), is outed as a private school student and product of a non-broken home, mos def no-nos when you’re trying to be real.
Rabbit’s realness lies in his misery and, notably, the treachery all around him: his mom keeps promising she’ll clean up; his ex lies about being pregnant; his current flame, Alex (Brittany Murphy) cheats to advance her modeling career; and his homeboy Wink (Eugene Byrd) keeps promising him studio time but screws him over instead. Rabbit himself never betrays his friends, a personable but easily thumbnailed lot—earnest Sol George (Omar Benson Miller), goofy Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), political DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson)—with whom he rides around at night, trading stories about what they’ll do when one of them breaks out. Their most likely ticket is, of course, Rabbit, whose mad skills on the mic give them all hope, dreams of fine women and phat rides, and relocation to anywhere that’s not the wrong side of the road called 8 Mile.
When Rabbit is dreaming of getting out, the film shows him writing rhymes, scratching them on his scraps of paper while gazing on little Lily drawing pictures of a happy family (her and Rabbit); “Lose Yourself” pumps in its low-key version in the background. This is 8 Mile‘s version of Stallone running up the museum steps. Indeed, the film repeatedly and openly celebrates its allusions, as these comprise its art and artifice. On-screen references range from mom watching Sirk’s Imitation of Life (in particular, a painful outing scene) and Meth and Mary’s “All I Need” in the background as Rabbit eyes Alex shimmying across the room, to Junior Mafia’s “Get Money” and ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” as cruising tracks.
But by the time the Wu’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is offering backstage commentary on the big fat sell-out that seems likely to taint anyone affiliated with Rabbit (or with this project), 8 Mile is long past worrying about it. This is movie about making it, about beating back the meanies, about individual gumption: when Rabbit assures his mom that he’s going to “do it on my own,” she nods sagely, “You know Rabbit, I think that’s the best way.” Hooray team.
While all this too-familiar designing hurts the film, no doubt, makes it cheesy, there’s also something to be said for turning the Rocky-like finale into a rowdy mc battle: how many AOL subscribers have cheered on lyricists working anal sex, dick sizes, and fucking each other’s girlfriends into their rhymes?
At the same time, the movie might benefit from checking its source. Forget that Rabbit’s called out as Elvis, Vanilla Ice, or Leave it to Beaver: Em’s been here a million times already. He knows where he’s from, but more importantly, he knows where his art comes from. It comes not only from the trailer where he lived with Debbie or the arguments he’s had with Kim or the many losses he’s endured during his 29 years on the planet. It comes from hiphop, the frame and culture that granted him a voice and gave him love.
And that, at last, is the film’s major lapse in judgment. In remaking this kid’s story into a “universally” appealing story, it pretends that Rabbit fighting to get inside, to compete with his black neighbors in Detroit, is the success, that he triumphed over race prejudice. Eminem, like anyone who’s paid attention, knows different. In “White America,” he raps, “Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half.” Rabbit’s story is galvanizing and Eminem is a superstar. But hiphop has more and other stories to tell.