I’ll get this out of the way right up front: I am not a fan of Eminem.It’s nothing against the man himself or the content of his lyrics, which isan understandable bone of contention with many others. Quite simply, I don’tthink much of his music. Repeated radio play of his music is bad enough.Watching a two-hour film starring him, with a script loosely based on hislife, didn’t hold much promise either.
Yet in the hands of Curtis Hanson, the talented filmmaker responsible fortwo of the best Hollywood films in the past decade, LA Confidentialand Wonder Boys, my fears began to subside. 8 Mile, acombination of Rocky and Purple Rain set in the hip-hop world of the mid’90s, is a winner.
Scott Silver’s screenplay is pretty straightforward: Mr E plays Jimmy”Rabbit” Smith, Jr, a young white male in his twenties who lives in the titularsection of Detroit. The name 8 Mile represents the divide between blacks andwhites, rich and poor as well as the psychological boundary that divides andchallenges Jimmy’s dream of becoming a rap artist. His biggest problem isn’tdealing with his alcoholic, white trash mother (Kim Basinger), his on andoff romance with a local gal named Alex (Brittany Murphy), the dead-end jobin an auto parts factory or even a competing rapper at the local contests,Popa Doc (Anthony Mackie). His biggest problem is overcoming his fear offailure and realizing his potential as an artist.
As he did with his two previous films, Hanson does a great job immersingthe viewer into the film’s characters and the world they inhabit. Hanson andcinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Frida) perfectly capture thebleakness of the Detroit neighborhood and the excitement and raw energy ofthe underground hip-hop scene. Hanson takes Silver’s screenplay, elevates itabove its mildly predictable level and explores with great detail theracial, cultural and economic factors that contributed to hip-hop’s originsand continue to influence and inspire many of the genre’s artists.
There is a great level of intensity and energy to Eminem’s screen debut,a performance reminiscent in many ways of James Dean or even John Travoltafrom Saturday Night Fever. Mr. E never goes over the top; he developsgreat chemistry with the other cast members and shows that he can deliver aline of dialogue with conviction and believability. I’m not sure if itsOscar material, but it’s without doubt one hell of a debut.
Excellent support is provided from Basinger, Murphy and Mekhi Phifer asFuture, the friend who believes in Jimmy and refuses to give up hope onseeing him break into the big time. Omar Benson Miller, De’Angelo Wilson andEvan Jones are also great as Rabbit’s support team (and the film’s welcomecomic relief).
8 Mile may not have converted me into an Eminem fan, but it hasmade me do two things I thought I would never do: cut him some slack andgive him some well-deserved credit, at least on his acting ability. We’llhave to wait to see if he can play something other than a variation ofhimself, but here and now, both Eminem and 8 Mile deliver.