Director Curtis Hanson tells the story of controversial white rapper Eminem in his movie debut 8 Mile. When the project was first announced many were left scratching their heads. With inflammatory lyrics as appalling as his thug lifestyle why would the highly respected Hanson, who directed L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys take on a seemingly frivolous bio-pic about the latest great white hope of rap? Doesnt anyone remember Vanilla Ice? At best this was teenage fluff for pre-pubescent, suburban-bred boys with too much testosterone. Suffice to say the fourth estate was on high alert, the wolves were circling.
By now most know Eminems story; Born Marshall Mathers III to a deadbeat father and trailer trash mother he was raised a poor white boy in a mostly black neighborhood on the border of Detroit. As his screen persona Jimmy Smith or Rabbit, his character shares the same arc. He runs with a crew of streetwise kids who work menial jobs while dreaming of getting out. They call themselves the Three-One-Third after the Detroit area code. While they fashion themselves as rappers they mostly spend their time talking trash, picking fights and getting stoned. Jimmy points out their grim reality; they work lousy jobs and still live at home with their mothers.
In the remarkable opening scene Jimmy is alone in the bathroom of a seedy club, waiting to take the stage for a battle, where two rappers face-off with improvisational rhyming. We see him feigning his moves in the mirror, like a fighter shadow boxing. He bounces to the beat from his headphones as he practices his moves. The hard look on his face, his nerves as he suddenly vomits, the sounds of the raucous crowd all tell you hes not just performing, hes fighting for his life. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
The leader of their crew and Jimmys best friend is Future, played by Mekhi Phifer. Future recognizes Jimmys talent. Like the father Jimmy never knew, Future believes in Jimmy and pushes him to succeed. Like the son, Jimmy pushes back. In a wonderful scene together they mock his mothers latest sleaze boyfriend, rapping out a hip-hop take on Lynyrd Skynyrds Kentucky-fried Sweet Home Alabama. Future doesnt give up on him and despite his protests you know Jimmy doesnt want him to. He keeps pitching him the ball until he hits it.
In addition to the talented Mr. Phifer Eminem has support from Kim Bassinger as his broken down, boozy mother and Brittany Murphy as the saucy temptress who teaches Jimmy a hard lesson about priorities. Despite all the fine performances though its Eminem who rises to the occasion. He appears in every scene and even when hes not saying a word his screen presence is powerful.
8 Mile takes a calculated risk, for the most part withholding Eminems greatest talent, his rhyming. If he didnt command a strong screen presence or the story was weak even fans wouldve balked. But it all holds together as we approach a thrilling climax. Like the reluctant gunfighter Shane, we know sooner or later Jimmy will slap leather. When he does his performance is spellbinding. The film succeeds in every way imaginable. Im Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine.
© 2002 - Erik Petersen - Air Date: 11/13/02
USA - 2002