8 Mile, Eminem’s cinematic debut, is the hip-hop variation of Purple Rain, a foul-mouthed Karate Kid, a Roadhouse for those too young or hip to remember the ethos guiding that film’s epochal man-against-the-world theme. The film presents its characters’ dilemmas and goals, following them as they try like hell to fight the power and prove themselves as worthy human beings – warts, trailers, and all.
Ever since “Slim Shady,” Marshall Mathers III has never handled anything with kid gloves. And the gloves haven’t come off here; Mathers dominates almost every scene of 8 Mile. Now, keep in mind that this film is not Eminem: The E! True Hollywood Story. To be sure, the film is tailor-made for its star. After all, it’s not like he picked Out of Africa 2 as his first celluloid vehicle. But 8 Mile ‘s principal parts are far enough from Eminem’s own well-published road to fame that you don’t feel like his character, Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith, is just another of the rapper’s personas, delivered visually instead of aurally.
[Warning: Article contains spoilers; stop reading now if you don’t want certain plot details revealed… – Ed.]
The film brings us into Rabbit’s life as he is about to take stage in what you believe will be a crowning moment of hip-hop genius, given what we know about Our Star’s REAL life. Aah Ha! Rabbit takes the stage at Detroit’s Shelter (not really the Shelter), only to choke on his own words and be miserably ridiculed by the teeming crowd on hand. The “vomit on his sweater” lyric from the film’s accompanying single is illustrated with aplomb. Here’s Eminem, the self-hating, self-loving, self-promoting white rapper that we love to hate and love, playing a guy who pukes on his Russell Athletic before what he hopes to hell will be his big break. It’s a nice moment of humility, and succeeds in separating Rabbit from his real-life alter ego.
Eminem’s Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith, Jr. is a down-on-his-luck, would-be rapper with girlfriend issues and a white-trash mom who’s fucking his high school classmate. Through a series of dead-end jobs, Rabbit focuses furiously upon on his raps, syllabically violent flows similar to a certain real-life rapper we know. Forced to move into his mom’s trailer after the breakup, Rabbit is more determined than ever to put his rhyming skills to work and the get the hell of Detroit. In fact, seemingly everyone in his immediate universe is fixated upon success and/or stardom – anything beyond the sodden blues and grays of their immediate existence. (To that end, Cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro [Frida] captures beautifully the grit and fractured brilliance of the film’s Detroit locations). Rabbit’s rag-tag, multi-racial crew is entirely supportive of their boy, even if they may be hoping he succeeds just to get on his coattails later. Rabbit meets and fucks (in an auto-stamping plant, no less) Brittany Murphy’s Alex, a girl running with Bunny’s rival crew, who dreams of moving to New York to model. Even Rabbit’s mom fixates on the good life. When she eventually wins $3500 at Bingo, she makes Bisquick pancakes for she and Rabbit in triumphant celebration.
Let’s look at some potential references.
PURPLE RAIN – The Kid writhes on his back during “I Would Die 4 U,” appealing with every purple fiber of his being to Apollonia that HE is the real thing, and not rival Morris Day (what about Jerome?). Similarly, Alex conveniently arrives on scene in 8 Mile to witness not only Rabbit’s “Cop Rock” moment destroying Xzibit by the lunch truck at the factory, but also in the film’s penultimate rap throwdown, when Rabbit finally spits out the words he’s so eagerly wanted to say about himself, his detractors, and his own downtrodden upbringing. In both films, the female character represents not only the sexual foil for the hero, but also The Fan; or, the characters function as Our Eyes, enfolding us in a moment of truth. In both scenes, you can’t help but root for the flawed hero onstage.
KARATE KID – Ralph Macchio’s Daniel is a working-class hack with no future beyond the empty swimming pool in his decrepit apartment complex. But the discipline of Karate saves him, and eventually helps him overcome not only his own cynicism about his future, but also the rival gang of Karate enthusiasts. Sweep the leg, Johnny! 8 Mile pits Rabbit against a sullen-eyed, thuggish rap crew who repeatedly get the better of he and his rag-tag group of mates. While Rabbit’s Mr Myagi is represented by Mekhi Phifer’s Future, the final showdown of the film is classic hero-makes-good screenwriting.
ROADHOUSE – Mystery Science Theater’s Mike Nelson describes Roadhouse as such: “a legendary bouncer finds love and battles his demons in a small bar just outside Kansas City.” Sam Elliot is nowhere to be found in 8 Mile. But substitute “legendary bouncer” for “knows-he-can-be-legendary rapper,” “Kansas City” “Detroit,” and you’re getting pretty close to the story laid out in this film. And that’s not a bad thing! Sure, Roadhouse is an atrotious film. But it’s a great study in bizarro-reality screenwriting. Inside this fantasy Roadhouse universe, there’s a culture of bouncers – mulleted dudes that travel the backroads of Midwestern America, instilling truth and justice into overserved slimeballs with their fists or, in the case of Patrick Swayze’s Dalton, with a degree in philosophy from NYU. 8 Mile takes this idea and turns the screws. In Rabbit’s world, everyone is a rapper, and everyone believes that they’ll be the one that breaks out of the Shelter and onto the burgeoning bling bling (a phrase not invented in 1995) scene. In Rabbit’s case, he ends up battling his demons onstage, during a battle rap, and finds that embracing them is the very thing that held him back for so long.
Sure, it’s derivative. But what saves 8 Mile from the cut-out bin is solid acting in support of Eminem (by Phifer, Basinger, and the luminescent Chloe Greenfield, as Rabbit’s little sister and sign of his true heart), as well as a genuinely believable performance from the man himself. It’s not fun to picture him in anything other than the story of a hard-luck 1995 rapper trying to make something of himself. But in 8 Mile, his Rabbit resonates. Director Curtis Hanson found a way into Eminem that hasn’t already been explored by the rapper himself, which might be the greatest reason why 8 Mile works so well, despite its obvious influences. As said, Mathers’ sapphire gaze is in basically every scene. That his blue eyes are believably those of Rabbit, and not simply the angry glare of the rapper-cum-actor behind them, is the genius behind Eminem and the makers of 8 Mile.
[UPDATE: If you are looking for the comments, I had to remove them from this page. I created a new topic for them on the message boards with a link to the original comments. I apologize for the inconvenience. – ed.]
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