Miles producer Brian Glazer has been credited with helping
the likes of Ron Howard, Meg Ryan, Michael Keaton, and Tom Hanks achieve
Hollywood success, but only time will tell whether or not he has yet
another future movie star in his sights. Perhaps he has merely succeeded
in cashing in on the biggest, most controversial pop star since Madonna.
Even without regard for his future film prospects, however, there
seems to be a general consensus that Eminem shines in 8 Mile,
directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 1998) and written
by Scott Silver (johns, 1996 & Mod Squad, 1999).
Love or hate him, like or detest rap, Americans of all colors, ages
and musical persuasions have demonstrated their fascination with Eminem
at the box office.
- 8 Mile, named for the stretch of road separating poor, urban,
black Detroit from its vanilla suburbs, chronicles the rise of John
Rabbit Smith, Jr., a poor, white rapper trying to make
a name for himself in the local hip-hop scene. Played by and based
upon the life of rap superstar Eminem, Rabbit is a vessel of agitated
emotions, always shaken to the point of exploding, and it is not hard
to understand why. When we first meet him, he has just broken up with
his girlfriend, lost his car, been embarrassed at a local rap club,
and come home to his mothers trailer to find her having sex
with one of his high school acquaintances.
- Rabbits reactions to such disappointments are uncannily honest
and sometimes violent. He acts without thinking, like a short, brooding,
hooded, baggy-pants-wearing id. One moment he beats his mothers
boyfriend to a pulp for insulting her. In the next, he plays the protective
brother, consoling his young sister whom he loves more than anyone
in the movie. The troubling aspect of Rabbits erratic behavior,
however, is the pattern that emerges from it. He may show a patriarchal
tenderness towards his practically mute sister, but the other main
women in the film, his mother (Kim Bassinger) and girlfriend, Alex
(Brittany Murphy) represent
threats to Rabbits potency and require containment. But in contrast
to Eminems rap alter-ego, Slim Shady, Rabbit never for a moment
raises a fist in the direction of these women. Instead, he manages
the threats they pose by attacking the men close to them.
- The portrayal of these female characters is unapologetically problematic.
Rabbits mother either sits around drunk, waiting for boyfriend
Gregs settlement check, or bets the familys
next meal at bingo, while Alex will do anything or anyone to climb
towards her dream of becoming a model. Both characters need the help
of others to survive, let alone put together a thought or two, and
the film naturalizes their innate selfishness, as if their ontological
essence were to impede Rabbits development. These women come
off more as speedbumps, or sandtraps on a golf course than as people.
In fact, the only female characters positively portrayed in 8 Mile
are Lily, Rabbits little sister, and the female rappers, women
who, coincidentally, are not cast as sexual agents.
- Despite these flaws, Rabbit remains a captivating subject. Eminem
seems comfortable, cool, and focused as the camera circles around
him. His heart-breaking stares lend Rabbit a soft quality usually
obscured by Eminems aggressive musical personae. That Rabbit
sometimes cannot find the right words, that he occasionally stumbles,
proves to be a satisfying and humanizing counterbalance to Eminems
usual blitzkrieg of verbal virtuosity.
- The dramatic tension of the movie rests in Rabbits growing
confidence, the way he begins to use the shattered pieces of his life
to create art. And we can all guess from the opening minutes of the
movie what the resolution to this tension will be. More clues appear
along the way as Rabbit unleashes bit by bit the same self-deprecating,
angry mockery that made Eminem famous. Perversely, no matter what
stance we have on Eminems lyrical content, we yearn for this
release. We cheer for Rabbit to finally become Eminem, the one who
can move the crowd, rocking the mic with his unrestrained diatribes.
But 8 Mile makes us wait, like any other good story of perseverance
and eventual triumph, until the climactic scene to see just exactly
how he will do it. Drawing on the musical conventions of Rocky,
another great-white-hope movie, we hear an Eye
of the Tiger-like riff, which lets us know the big scene
is on its way.
- Along the way, Rabbit and his crewall young black men, with
the exception of the laughable, white Cheddar Bobshare some
poignant and thought provoking moments against the gray/blue cinematography
that captures the old brick buildings, rusted-out cars, and dark,
dank hip-hop clubs of Detroit. Elegantly woven throughout these scenes,
hip-hop music breathes life into the picture. Whether accompanying
Rabbit on the bus in a state of soul-searching introspection or evoking
the loneliness of a late night drive through the city, the soundtrack
nearly exclusively uses hip-hop beats to lend emotional color to its
scenes. Like other recent films, most notably Ghost Dog (1999),
which featured a hip-hop soundtrack produced by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan,
this approach marks a notable shift from scoring for old-school movies
like Beat Street (1984) and Krush
Groove (1985). In recent films, hip-hop underscores the dramatic
moments of the film as well as the scenes in which rap is explicitly
featured, demonstrating some of the different emotional textures that
can be brought out through a medium whose detractors often dismiss
as merely violent or aggressive.
- Unfortunately, however, Shady/Interscope Records release of
the CD, Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture 8 Mile
reflects a calculated marketing research play to cultivate new consumers.
Instead of attempting to offer fans a CD that would recreate the sonic
world of the film, this pseudo-soundtrack almost exclusively features
cuts, whether used in the film or not, from artists on Eminems
own label. Rather than paying even more royalties to other labels
whose artists songs appear in the film, Shady/Interscope has
developed a brilliant strategy to ride the coattails of 8 Mile.
- Especially for people who care about rap music and hip-hop culture,
the most compelling scenes in 8 Mile are the various freestyle
battles. One such scene shows factory workers engaged
in an impromptu cipher, a circle of rappers and onlookers taking turns
trying to outdo one another. This battle becomes a brilliant re-appropriation
of their painfully short 30-minute lunch break, but Rabbits
defense of a gay coworker in this scene mars the illusion of authenticity.
Strangely offensive in its own way (Paul may be gay, but youre
a faggot), Rabbits friendship with the films only
gay character reads like a calculated public relations move and lets
the steam out of an otherwise powerful moment.
- This setback aside, the battle scenes illustrate the joy, jest,
and pleasure in the most politically incorrect rapping. The rappers
are practicing what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has coined signifyin(g),
the African American art of wordplay that creates difference through
repetition, subverting dominant narratives by foregrounding the slipperiness
of language. The crux of such practices lies in the participants
demonstration of their own imaginative vocal capacities, not necessarily
in the quality of information being transmitted.
- Although some might lament the fact that it has taken a movie about
a white rapper to make such a compelling statement about African American
culture, the movie itself seems poised to counter such race-thinking.
One of the most important, though implicit, suggestions made by 8
Mile is that to this generation, boundaries of culture and class
are much more important than those of race. In one of the funniest
and most memorable scenes, Rabbit and Future (Mekhi Phifer) do an
impromptu rap revision of Lynyrd Skynyrds Sweet Home Alabama,
heard playing from Rabbits mothers trailer. The
refrain Sweet Home Alabama becomes I live at home
in a trailer, and by signifying on this rock n roll
classic, Rabbit both finds a way to deal with the desperation of his
situation and illustrate that although he is white, his point of identification
lies with Future and their crew.
- Writing for the New Yorker, David Denby asserts that in 8 Mile,
Race is an issue, but its not the most important issue.
The universal appreciation of talent matters more
Fair is fair:
the man [Rabbit/Eminem] can do it (196). While I agree that
8 Mile propagates this message, there still remains the need
to calculate the price exacted by this erasure of race. The permeability
of racial boundaries and subtlety of interracial bonds in 8 Mile
are without question refreshing and positive. At the same time, one
cannot help but imagine the appropriation of these tropes to serve
a racist ideology that positions white males as the victims of alleged
black privilege gained through affirmative action. A fan, posting
an enthusiastic response to an ifilm review of 8 Mile,
bears testimony to such anxieties:
This movie was OUTSTANDING! I love how it showed the struggle of a young white male trying to make it in a black industry. All he went through The movie really is a must see for anyone who can appreciate someone who had to fight for what they have and for someone with undying will to get what he or she wants. (Eminem is a Genius)
- This viewer unwittingly picks up on the way in which the storyline
of 8 Mile and biography of Eminem intersect with neo-conservative
rhetoric about race. For example, she praises the movie for foregrounding
Eminems strength of will and work ethic, and coincidentally
Rabbit is the only character in his crew who seems to possess the
motivation to move beyond the small world of urban Detroit. She also
takes pleasure in seeing Rabbit succeed in a black cultural world,
a pleasure that betrays what could represent for some the soothing
reassertion of white privilege in a cultural arena previously off
limits. Most problematic of all, the suggestion that Eminem operates
in a black industry, while laughable, reveals the extent
to which people buy into narratives of how the white American male
has been disenfranchised. 8 Mile opens itself to such a reading
by keeping its sights set on the inner-city, avoiding any suggestion
that hip-hop music circulates through the conduits of multinational
capitalism and is heavily dependent on suburban, white teenagers for
- In the movie itself, just like the neo-conservative rhetoric that
naively calls for a colorblind society, Rabbit uses his
class identity to pivot around problematic racial relationships. Thus,
the films climactic scene hinges on Rabbit finally embracing
his white trash background, turning it against an inauthentic
bourgeois black foe. In a genre where overcoming adversity and keeping
it real are selling points, Rabbit uses his status as white
trash to locate himself as the ultimate victim, flipping the
conventional logic of race hierarchy on its head. While recognizing
class and/or cultural identities deconstructs the illogic of racism,
8 Mile ignores what will happen after Rabbit gains the respect
of his peers, leaving them to join the mass mediated machinery that
gave birth to Eminem and to the movie 8 Mile itself. The fact
remains that Eminems whiteness sells a lot of records. It explains
why so many thirteen year-old white kids claim they dont like
rap, but love Eminem. His place in the American racial imagination
has helped make him rich.
- In some ways, the Rabbit of 8 Mile represents the Rabbit
of John Updikes series rearticulated for the new millennium.
(This connection is made by the 8 Mile soundtrack, which contains
an original Eminem tune entitled Rabbit Runthe title
of Updikes first book.) Hes the white everyman of his
generation, except that his everyman status relies on his uniqueness
instead of his plainness. As white trash, Eminem has a
proximity to and an authentic relationship with inner
city black rappers, something tangible that middle-American voyeurs
can exploit to share his bond with and mastery of a perceived hostile
- Whether or not the literary reference was intentional, both Rabbits
represent middle-American constituencies confronting racialized economic
and cultural anxieties. Both are cast as losers that respond emotionally
and unapologetically to the circumstances they find themselves in,
voicing their pain in politically incorrect language. Both are anti-heroes
that engender an uncomfortable sympathy: We cheer for them to break
free of their cages while worrying that they may be doing more damage
than good. And both are white men in the middle of a multicultural
American landscape, which threatens to swallow them whole if they
cannot find some way to hold on to their role as protagonists.
- 8 Mile extends the possibility of both promising and problematic
human relationships. It demonstrates how class and cultural identities
often determine opportunities and allegiances, but obscures how race
continues to distribute the rewards of hard workmoney and respectunevenly.
While 8 Mile remains open to a number of problematic readings,
perhaps the blame lies less with Eminem than with our societys
apparent readiness to use him to support neo-conservative attitudes
about race. In this case, Eminems refrain, I am whatever
you say I am. If I wasnt then why would I say am? seems
University of California, Los Angeles
Denby, David. Breaking Through: 8 Mile and Frida. The New Yorker 78.34 (11 November 2002): 195197.
Tigerladyip. Eminem Is a Genius. Online posting. ifilm: The Internet Movie Guide. Accessed 16 November 2002 http://www.ifilm.com/ifilm/product/film_info/0,3699,2450860,00.html.
Beat Street. Dirs. Stan Lathan and Wynn P. Thomas. Orion, 1984.
Krush Groove. Dir. Michael Shultz. Warner Brothers, 1985.
Ghost Dog. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Artisan, 1999.