Director : Curtis Hanson
Screenplay : Scott Silver
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Eminem (Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith Jr.), Kim Basinger (Stephanie Smith), Brittany Murphy (Alex), Mekhi Phifer (Future), Eugene Byrd (Wink), Evan Jones (Cheddar Bob), De'Angelo Wilson (D.J. Iz), Omar Benson Miller (Sol George), Michael Shannon (Greg), Taryn Manning (Janeane)
Practically the only white man to have made it big in the world of hip-hop, Eminem has been a scandal magnet for the last five years, quickly rising to the top of the pop-culture heap, embodying anger and turmoil and bravado in his undeniably creative and powerful music. Putting him in the lead role of a major film was a risk, even when it's one that tells a story mirroring his own life in so many ways. As Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr., a young man from the wrong side of Detroit's 8 Mile trying to find his place in the world, Eminem is all coiled energy and pain, conveying a deep sense of both anger and, more importantly, vulnerability. Eminem has perfected his sneer - it's his bread and butter on stage and it's what we expect - but what makes his performance in 8 Mile a revelation is the way he takes that sneer and makes us understand it as a coping mechanism, a defense against everything that's wrong in his life - a mask for the fear he feels inside.
8 Mile takes place over a critical week in Rabbit's life in which he finds himself constantly faced with crucial life choices, not all of which are completely within his control. The film opens on a note of utter failure: Taking the stage at The Shelter, a dank, heavily crowded club, B-Rabbit freezes up during a "Battle," a weekly contest in which rappers get up on stage and have 45 seconds to improvise the harshest and most creative lyrical insults against their opponent they can muster. It's a huge moment in his life, one in which he had the opportunity to display his skills and to overcome the reverse stereotyping that, as a white man, he has no chance in a black man's world.
That initial failure on-stage haunts the rest of the film, a constant reminder of everything else that is wrong with Rabbit's life. The somewhat formulaic screenplay by Scott Silver (johns) virtually guarantees that a mirror scene will take place at the end in which Rabbit again takes the stage at The Shelter, but this time comes through. However, the majority of the film is not about that, but rather about Rabbit's day-to-day existence and how he navigates the course of his life.
Rabbit's problems begin at home, a trailer park where he is temporarily crashing with his irresponsible mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger), and her current boyfriend, a redneck mooch named Greg (Michael Shannon) who's not much older than he is. Rabbit works days in a metal-pressing factory, a repetitive and mindless job that he clings to, but just barely. Virtually the only thing that holds him together are his friends, led by Future (Mekhi Phifer), the dreadlocked DJ at The Shelter who hosts the Battles and believes in Rabbit's skills more than anyone. His other friends include Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones),Sol (Omar Benson Miller), and D.J. Iz (De'Angelo Wilson).
In a sense, all of these characters conform to easy movie types, Cheddar Bob being the goofy, white-boy-wannabe-gangsta, while D.J. Iz is the token African fundamentalist, the one who takes true pride in his black heritage and chides others for not doing the same. We've seen these characters before, but what works so beautifully in 8 Mile is the way they come together and form a makeshift family in which we can truly believe. For all its desperation and despair, 8 Mile is moving because of the way in which these friends interact - they banter and bicker and joke and egg each other on, but all the while there is a genuine sense of connection among them, a real feeling of affection and support that explains why they make it through each day.
Thus, when Rabbit is distracted by the advances of an aggressive young woman named Alex (Brittany Murphy), a groupie in the making if ever there were one, we immediately get the sense that theirs will not be a typical movie romance. It seems almost destined to go nowhere because neither of their hearts are in it; they're playing out a proscribed dance that only leads in circles. Rabbit and Alex have a steamy sexual interlude at the metal-pressing factory, and director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) stages it in such a way that we immediately associate their movements with the rhythmic clanks of the machinery around them. It's hot sex, but it's also mechanical, a moment of release that will ultimately carry no emotional charge that can last.
Not surprisingly, the story winds its way back to the stage at The Shelter, and Rabbit has his moment in the spotlight, making good on his skills where he had previously frozen. If this has a bit of a sports movie feel to it, with competitive rapping standing in for any other sport you could name, you're right. Yet, the sequence is staged with such energy and bravado and we've come to appreciate Rabbit's plight with such intensity that the scene works - it's genuinely exhilarating. It helps that Eminem is such a gifted performer, but when he finally cuts loose on the stage, we don't feel that we're watching a pop star, but rather a desperate character finally succeeding. And that is the primary reason why Eminem's performance is such a revelation: He manages to take all that we think we know about Eminem and inject it into his character without turning the character into a simple screen version of himself. Rabbit has a lot of Eminem in him - what we imagine he was probably like before he made it big - but he is at all times his own character.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick