8 Mile (2002) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Eugene Byrd, Omar Benson Miller, Evan Jones, De'Angelo Wilson, Taryn Manning, Anthony Mackie, Chloe Greenfield, Xzibit (cameo)
Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Scott Silver
Review published November 6, 2002
Not knowing very much about 8 Mile before going in other than it starred rapper Eminem, to say I was skeptical would be an understatement. Although a long-time fan of hip hop, Eminem's style hasn't appealed to me as much as other more talented rappers, and I have deemed much of his success to be because he is white (the so-called "Elvis" factor comes into play.) I suppose it's foolish to assume, but that's exactly what I did when first hearing that Eminem would be starring in a major motion picture, and knowing this would be his debut performance, I assumed it would be another fluffy vanity piece, like Mariah Carey's Glitter or Britney Spears' Crossroads. Yet, the fact that Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) is calling the shots was enough to get me to give it a shot on this rainy day when there's nothing else to watch, and 8 Mile superseded my every expectation.
The 8 Mile of the title is the name of a road in Detroit that marks a figurative and literal boundary between the haves and have-nots. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., aka "Rabbit" as his family and friends call him, who is definitely one of the have-nots. He is a struggling rap artist, who bounces around from job to job in hopes of earning enough money for studio time to record his demos, but in the meantime lives with his mother (Basinger, Bless the Child) and young sister (Greenfield, Project 313) in a trailer, the epitome of the "white trash" existence. He is an angry young lad, but his best friends know he is the most talented as far as skillz among them, that is when he isn't on stage choking from fear of the spotlight. As he struggles to earn the respect of his peers, life on the streets always threatens to consume him, from rival crews and gun-toting thugs, and happiness is something that seems to forever elude him. Survival of the fittest, or phattest as it were, with everyone around struggling to claw their way to air time and the ability to pull themselves out of ghetto existence.
Perhaps another reason to worry about the quality would be that Scott Silver is the screenwriter, whose only notable previous work was as the writer/director for the glossy but empty-headed movie version of Mod Squad. However, the writing here is fresh and innovative, smacking of reality, and even if the freestyle performances are ad-libbed by the respective performers, the story blends well with each character's personality and level of intelligence. There's hardly a one-dimensional character in the movie, even among supporting characters, with opinions shifting in ways that never seem contrived.
Credit for the realistic feel of the film should also go to Curtis Hanson, as he never sugar-coats the look of the city for Hollywood's sake, and he doesn't cow-tow to any particular group in order to try to gain street credibility for himself. It's actually amazing how comfortable Hanson seems with the material and vernacular of the hip hop underground considering his background, and this flexibility only secures him to the notion that he has really come into his own since the early days of making mediocre commercial formula films like Bad Influence and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
I had to start off by giving them credit because the focal point for all kudos from other media sources will probably go to Eminem for his breakthrough role, as it is a good one. Although he is probably not going to win any Oscars or become leading man material, as the character of Rabbit, Eminem delivers all the goods a seasoned actor would. If the scene calls for quiet contemplation, he delivers. When there needs to be some rage bubbling over, he delivers. If you want to have a freestyle delivered that actually feels like he is rolling off these pearls straight from the tip of the tongue he delivers. Say what you want about his music or his controversial demeanor, but dissing him as an actor based on his performance in 8 Mile will probably fall on deaf ears to anyone who actually sees the film.
Fans of Eminem will no doubt be pleased, and this film is very highly recommended for you. Those who hate, and I mean absolutely hate Eminem probably will be too stuck in their opinions to give the man his props. However, those who don't necessarily like him or his music but have an open mind like myself should check out 8 Mile for the brilliant performances (ALL of the cast is good, not just Eminem), an interesting story, and one hell of a humorous and dynamic finale. Just as Rabbit breaks the barriers of 8 mile, so does Eminem break the barriers of all of his naysayers. You will believe a white man can rap.
©2002 Vince Leo