Dave's Other Movie Log


Articles  Contents  Reviews  Guestbook

8 Mile***

The cult of personality is such a conspicuous feature of the culture of of modern capitalist societies, starting in the nineteenth century with figures such as Lord Byron and Franz Liszt, that it is hardly surprising this phenomenon should have been interwoven with the growth of the commercial cinema from its primitive beginnings down to the present. On the one hand, producers have wooed celebrities to appear on screen, while the movie industry, on the other, has generated pop icons like Charlie Chaplin or Marilyn Monroe, whose appeal transcends that of mere show biz personalities.

A perfect illustration of this mechanism at work is 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential), a movie which serves as the debut appearance of the rap artist Eminem, whose popularity will undoubtedly grow even larger as a result of the success of this picture. As a showcase for its star, 8 Mile works very well; as a motion picture, it works a bit more intermittently. But the movie has energy to burn. 8 Mile is a very well-made, highly entertaining commercial production, and I felt like standing up and cheering at the end, in spite of my reservations.

Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr. (Eminem) is an aspiring white rapper who lives with his single mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger) and little sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield) in a mobile home in an impoverished, racially mixed Detroit neighborhood--the 8 Mile of the film's title. In the opening scenes, Rabbit is slated to challenge another rapper at a local club, but backs down when on stage. The remainder of the action shows how he eventually overcomes his inhibitions and not only defeats his rival but becomes a star in the process. Needless to say, Rabbit's rise to fame requires him to overcome numerous obstacles, among them having to work in a stamping mill during the day and navigating a messy relationship with a neighborhood girl, Alex (Brittany Murphy), who wants to pursue a career as a model in New York.

The magazine Men's Health once contemptuously dismissed Eminem with the comment "At last, white trash has found a voice." 8 Mile more than demonstrates just how cheaply shallow--not to mention short-sighted--this judgment was. Eminem is somewhat diffident as an actor playing a role, but the instant he starts rapping, watch out! The dude is electricity incarnate. Part of the problem here, I think, results from the movie's intentional confusion of Marshall Mather/Eminem with the character of Rabbit, and the performer doesn't seem always certain about how to deal with this dilemma--when to shift gears, so to speak. But the neophyte is helped by some strong performers in supporting roles, especially Meki Phifer--who was outstanding playing the lead role in O--as his friend Future.

In this movie, next to the evocatively snarly voice he deploys in the rap sequences, Eminem's strongest asset is his highly expressive face. In closeups, Eminem reminded me of the young Robert Mitchum. Like Mitchum, he has rather unusual eyes. But where Mitchum's gaze combined sultry sensuality--he was one of the most sensual male actors ever to appear on the American screen--with a kind of amused sullenness, in Eminem's it is the sensuality which recedes far into the background. But the sullenness that occupies the foreground is more defensive than aggressive. Rabbit's look is that of a street guy nervously expecting all hell to break loose at any moment--the look by no means uncommon among contemporary American urban youth, black or white.

In his review of 8 Mile for the Los Angeles Times (11/8/02), Kenneth Turan pointed out the film's reliance on hoary clichés of sports movies--for example, the progression up to a confrontation between the two rival rappers at the movie's conclusion. But I found far more distracting 8 Mile's recourse to the clichés of literary naturalism. It seems a little obvious when Rabbit returns home at the beginning for him to find his welfare mother copulating with her lover, Greg (Michael Shannon). Nor are his subsequent Oedipal confrontations with Greg much more inspired. Contrivances of this sort are little more than the stale leftovers of Clifford Odets or James Farrell. At its crudest level, 8 Mile is Studs Lonigan with a white trash family in place of a poor Irish one.

The scenes of the rapper at home have an awkward, almost stilted quality. The dialogue hangs heavily in the air, and the pace almost falters, particularly in a bad scene in which Mom Smith attempts to discuss her amatory problems--Greg's reluctance to engage in oral sex--with her son. Fortunately, everything changes the instant Rabbit is hanging out with his bros. Then the rhythms of their spoken interchanges determine the rhythm of the film itself--and therein lies its strength. 8 Mile captures the feel of contemporary American language as few movies ever have, and never more so than when the dialogue spontaneously transforms itself into rap. Even visually, the film--ably photographed in subdued colors by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros)--changes, shifting to an edgy, cinéma vérité style that perfectly complements the action.

Quite laudably, 8 Mile is trying to show a slice of American life that rarely gets on the screen. I can't imagine this is the image of the United States the folks in the White House like to see being shown around the world. All the better! But the movie doesn't need to fall back on outdated plot devices to explain the anger Rabbit vents in his raps. How could anyone forced to grow up in such miserable surroundings not be filled with rage, even if his family was as  genteel as Peter Parker's in Spider-Man? 

The interesting question 8 Mile tacitly raises is how the richest nation in the world can tolerate its citizens living in squalor--powerfully documented in the film by shots of urban blight as Rabbit and his buddy drive to work--without batting an eyelash. A few years back, Warren Beatty's Bulworth ventured into this territory with some location photography of Southeast Los Angeles, but 8 Mile goes much farther. Since Vice President Cheney keeps assuring the public that the inhabitants of Iraq cannot wait to exchange the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for the American Way of Life, I suggest some screenings of this movie in Baghdad to let them see what they are in for.

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database


E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net