When it was announced back in 2002 that Eminem was set to star in a loosely autobiographical film called "8 Mile", I must admit that I dismissed it as a vanity project. With no acting experience to speak of, I assumed it was just a way to take advantage of his highly popular music career. Even after hearing positive reviews, I still avoided the film for many years. You can therefore understand how taken aback I was to find out that the film is actually rather excellent.
"8 Mile" is the story of a young white rapper named Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith (Eminem), trying to make a name for himself in Detroit's underground scene. The title refers to 8 Mile Road, a dividing line between the urban city area and the more affluent suburbs. As is the case with gentrification, it results in racial separation with the inner city becoming predominantly populated by minorities. There are exceptions to the rule however, as is the case with our protagonist's blue-collar white family. Living with his unemployed single mom in her trailer, B-Rabbit comes to the realization that he has to find a way out.
When we're first introduced to B-Rabbit, he's preparing for a rap battle hosted by his close friend David "Future" Porter (Mekhi Phifer). Warming up in sweats, he could be easily mistaken for a fight. He seems confident until we realize his true nature - he has crippling stage fright. Puking over himself due to nerves, it's no surprise when he chokes in front of the hostile audience. Quickly losing his all-important respect, it seems like his journey to success has been curtailed before it began.
These ideas of fear and respect are explored quite well in the subsequent plot. Much of that is due to Eminem's impressive performance in the lead role. Showing the intuition of veteran actors, he nails the character's frustrations, passion and oppressive fear. I believed every word and gesture. The script makes him work hard too, refusing to allow him to hide behind his well-known musical talent. Despite its main thrust of a budding music career, screenwriter Scott Silver makes a smart decision to avoid musical territory. As such, it allows Eminem to flex his acting muscles through subplots involving romance and domestic drama.
There are numerous other examples that illustrate how shrewd Silver's script is. Take for instance, the rapport between B-Rabbit and his slacker friends. They often discuss their dreams for the future, with the main goal of acquiring wealth and the female attention it brings. They have a clear objective but no actual strategy to achieve it. This trend of "plans without planning" is an unfortunate attitude that plagues many young people in poor neighbourhoods (and even others who are more fortunate). They often lack the means the pursue their goals but they are also influenced by a society that suppresses their ambition. It all relates to that theme of fear, a throughline that is evident in nearly all the film's characters. It's a fear of failure, fear of disappointment and most significantly, it's a fear of the hard work it takes to gain a better life.
Curtis Hanson's directing and technical detailing is also quite deft. In approaching the theme of earning respect within the rap community, he does a great job visualizing the extreme pressure of B-Rabbit's white infringement into a black world. The rap battle scenes make this particularly vivid, with the tight framing emphasizing the pressure cooker atmosphere of his presence in front of the homogenized mass of dark figures. Their imposing taunts and ridicule make the cathartic final battle all the more gratifying.
The filmmaking is indeed remarkably assured but most of all, "8 Mile" thrives on the back of its characters. Apart from Eminem, I must also single out Brittany Murphy as his love interest and Kim Basinger as his mother. Murphy is absolutely radiant in the film, acting like a muse to B-Rabbit and enlivening the film with her presence. Meanwhile, Basinger was digging into her own role like it was destined to deliver her another Oscar. Bless her heart, she didn't realize that it wasn't her movie but she's terrific in her scenes.
So you see, there's more than meets the eye when it comes to "8 Mile". Eminem certainly proved that he has the acting chops and Curtis Hanson obviously approached the material with the same level of care as his "prestige" dramas. It took a long time to get here but just like B-Rabbit, this film eventually earned my respect.