directed by Curtis Hanson
opens Nov. 8 at Neptune and others
Raised by a scandalous mother, a blue-eyed vocalist skyrockets to stardom from a bad neighborhood, hangs with thugs, bashes women and gays, and defiantly does it his way. Sinatra? No, Eminem, arguably the most loathsome popular music genius since Sinatra: He raps about snuffing his ex-wife and raping his trailer-park mom, sells 30 million albums, and turns his own bad luck and worse character into art of the highest order. If that weren't astounding enough, now he proves perfectly credible as a movie star and a nice guy onscreen. That's why they call it acting.
In Curtis Hanson's film loosely inspired by Eminem's life, the rapper is Jimmy "B. Rabbit" Smith Jr., a fatherless loser living with a mattress-back mom (a convincingly smutty-slutty yet still stunning Kim Basinger) at 8 Mile Road Vehicle Court, on the border between impoverished white and impoverished black Detroit. His mom refuses to get a job, putting her faith in bingo and her lover—Rabbit's worthless former classmate (Michael Shannon), an ignorant Lynryd Skynyrd fan, who claims he's expecting a big settlement check.
Like most youth-culture movies, 8 Mile is about alternative families. Rabbit trusts his future to Future (the avuncular Mekhi Phifer), who runs rap competitions at a club called the Shelter, where a mostly black crowd finds shelter from the impressively Chechnya-like futility of the Motor City. (A running joke is Eminem's ever- dying car.) Hanson refused to make an MTV-style movie; he concentrates on the folkways of Future's crew, an altogether lovable gang that can't shoot (nor rap) straight but lives on the ever-receding dream of the big time. The best character is the white buffoon of the group, Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), who's always getting them in unnecessary scrapes.
The central theme is the primacy of class consciousness over race and the lifelong quest for authenticity and self-respect. The art of rap originated from a long tradition of black Americans dissing each other and authority figures (there's a Chinua Achebe novel in which newly enslaved blacks mock in their work song the "ashy buttocks" of their gray-shorts-wearing white overseers). Rap is ideally suited for cinema: It's about performance as combat, which sometimes erupts into mortal combat in the streets. The movie, set in the innocent 1995 era—before the Tupac and Biggie Small murders—is framed by two Shelter "battles" in which Rabbit tries to out-shame black rivals and win the crowd's heart—to get himself adopted, basically.
At first, shame claims him, silences him in front of the underclass family. One rap goes, "They laugh 'cause you're white with a mike, this is hip-hop, you don't belong!" But with the love of his interracial gang and the encouragement (and foreplay-free first-date fornication) of a miniskirted blonde hard chick, cute as a raccoon (the increasingly popular squeeze toy Brittany Murphy), Rabbit soldiers on and prevails in a final battle as ineluctable as the denouement of Rocky or Saturday Night Fever or Footloose.
Eminem is better interacting with his friends than brooding solo for the camera (the camera likes him, but it loves Ice Cube). Hanson humanizes Eminem in scenes where he protects Cheddar and a beloved kid sister, bonds like crazy with pals, works hard at a car plant, and burns down an abandoned house to prevent its reuse by a psycho rapist (this actually happened in Detroit).
MOST CUNNINGLY, Hanson dramatically neutralizes Eminem's misogyny and homophobia. He has Rabbit rap in defense of a gay guy rap-razzed by a homophobic straight guy ("He's gay—you're a faggot") and puts down his rap rivals in a rather evenhanded way ("How could six dicks be a pussy?"). What keeps all this hooey real is the in-the-hood cinematography of Amores Perros' Rodrigo Prieto, the production design of Traffic's Philip Messina, and the excellence of the directing, acting, and rapping.
The climactic Shelter rap battle scene is terrific: Rabbit deprives his rivals of their ammo against him by comically admitting and brilliantly boasting about every single embarrassing thing about himself, clinching his win by rallying the crowd with race-transcending Detroit poverty patriotism, mocking his opponent's private-school education ("No such thing as half-way crook!"), and flashing that most resonant symbol, his bare ass. Eminem uses white-butt self-mockery to win the song contest, while renouncing and challenging the overseer class.
But the buildup is too long and slow, the finale is too short, and Eminem is way more volcanically enthralling in his own videos. The crucial aspect of his greatness is his out-of-control humor, which 8 Mile tones down in the interests of proposing him for sainthood. Like Ol' Blue Eyes, Eminem has gotta be he—a horrible person—in order to be authentically immortal. He may actually get an Oscar nomination for the movie. But as far as I'm concerned, he should get his skinny ass back to MTV before I kick it back there.