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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Whitewash job on rap's 'white trash'

8 Mile

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Curtis Hanson
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

If the movie "8 Mile" existed in a vacuum -- some far more pleasant alternative universe where the noxious persona of Mr. Marshall Mathers III hadn't been burned into our collective consciousness over the course of several albums -- it would be a pretty good flick. But that is one mighty big "if".

News photo
Eminem in "8 Mile"

As is, "8 Mile" joins Mariah Carey's "Glitter" as yet another exercise in celebrity-image spin; here we get a carefully calibrated performance in which Eminem constructs a kinder, gentler persona . . . well, as gentle as you can get without becoming a weepy bitch, as Mr. Mathers would say. Following in the footsteps of pop stars such as David Bowie ("The Man Who Fell To Earth") and Prince ("Purple Rain"), Eminem isn't an actor playing a role, so much as a star who can command a role modeled on him. Or, rather, the current "him" that he wishes to sell to the public.

Directed by the always competent Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "The Wonder Boys"), "8 Mile" tells a story loosely based on Eminem's own pre-fame hard times, living in Detroit on the mostly black side of the racial divide as represented by 8 Mile Road. The character he plays, Jimmy Smith Jr., aka "B. Rabbit," is a wannabe rapper who's hungry for a break but feeling trapped by circumstance; he's just walked out on his pregnant girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning), and is now stuck back at his trailer-park home with his boozy-floozy mom Stephanie (Kim Basinger) and adoring kid sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield).

Hell, he's so hard up -- in the ultimate sign of emasculation -- he doesn't even have a set of wheels, having left his car with Janeane, a move that establishes what a nice guy Rabbit essentially is, and one who seems far removed from the Eminem we know from his albums. This is a guy who fantasized about killing his girlfriend on "Kim," and who -- in real life -- was nabbed by the cops for stalking his ex and pulling a piece on a guy who kissed her.

Rabbit still has a bit of that Eminem-size chip on his shoulder, though. He's determined to prove himself in the realm of hip-hop "battles," where opposing rappers go at each other like boxers in the ring, each dropping rhymes that seek to destroy the other guy's ego, rhythmic trash-talk that's basically one step short of exchanging blows. Rabbit's an anomaly, a white guy in an all-black world, and he doesn't help matters when he chokes at the mike during his first onstage battle. Hanson and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros") do a good job at capturing the adrenalin-charged thrill of these events and contrasting this energy nicely with the boring factory work and squalid, abandoned streets that define Rabbit's life.

Rabbit's homeboys stand by him, though, with Future (Mehki Phifer), the promoter of the battles at the Shelter Club, pushing him to try again, and Wink (Eugene Byrd), a smooth-talking agent-type, promising to hook Rabbit up with some established rappers and record a demo. Opposing his future dreams are the Leaders of the Free World, a group of bad-ass gangsta rappers, his boss at the factory where he works, his mom's red-neck boyfriend Greg (Michael Shannon), and virtually all the women in his life: embarrassing mom, pregnant ex-girlfriend, and tarty new flame, Alex (Brittany Murphy), a wannabe model.

When Rabbit busts the face of rival rapper Lyckety Splyt, or beats Greg's head into the floor, we're getting the same old Eminem, a walking revenge story. But it's mostly with the women that the film attempts to do the image-spin doctoring. His mom -- though portrayed as a lazy, bingo-addicted, alcoholic sex fiend -- is also given a bit of sympathy. And Rabbit actually defends her when Greg shoves her around. Compare this to Eminem's song about his own mother, "Kill You," where he raps: "Bitch, I'ma kill you/ You don't wanna f**k with me/ Girls leave -- you ain't nothing but a slut to me!"

Then we get to see Rabbit parked in his car outside Janeane's apartment pining for her and admitting oh-so-sensitively that "it's not about you; it's me." Again, hold this up next to "Kim," where Eminem raps about his ex: "Shut the f**k up and get what's coming to you/ Bleed, bitch, bleed!" Similarly, Rabbit gently dotes on his sister Lily in the film, but Eminem once rapped: "My little sister's birthday/ She'll remember me/ For a gift I had 10 of my boys take her virginity."

Then there's Alex, who dumps Rabbit as quickly as she shags him, once it looks like Wink is the man who can set her up with a fashion photographer. She's the prototypical, money-grubbing, unfaithful "bitch ho' " of just about every gangsta rap ever to spew through a microphone. But while Eminem may sing "all bitches is ho's," "8 Mile" is restrained enough to suggest that Alex is just as desperate as Rabbit to get out of the dead-end rustbelt decay of Detroit, and hence shouldn't be judged too harshly.

The scene that takes the cake comes when Rabbit takes on another worker at the factory, saying "Cut it with the gay jokes," before going on to say "He may be gay, but you're the faggot," a line that attempts to wash Eminem's hands clean of the endless "faggot" and "d**k-sucking" lyrics he's recorded over the years.

Has Eminem grown up? Or is this Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver doing it for him? Or is his persona in "8 Mile" nothing more than a sop to a wider demographic beyond misogynistic teen boys? For a guy who's made a career out of channeling vitriolic hate toward women, gays, his mother and sister, his girlfriend, his rivals, and just about anyone whose existence isn't somehow subservient to the needs of his id -- like, say, Christine Aguilera -- there's reason to doubt his conversion.

What "8 Mile" does succeed in doing -- and you could say this about Eminem's whole career up till now -- is in creating the ultimate in wish fulfillment for white-boy wannabe hip-hoppers. It not only shows a white-boy upstaging the bro's at their own game, it also manages to reposition the white male as the underdog, the minority, within a black-dominated culture (as shown clearly when an all-black crowd boos Rabbit off the stage yelling "cracker a**hole!" and another rapper dismisses him as "trailer trash.")

If the essence of hip-hop's popularity lies in its claim to "street cred," of reflecting an altogether harsher, urban, black experience that is both more "real" and "edgier" than what exists in more affluent white suburbs, then "8 Mile" performs the subtle trick of making its white hero be all that, and more so. In the current U.S. atmosphere of victim culture, this is the ultimate badge of authenticity.

Being a victim, however, means there's always somebody else to blame for your being messed-up. So if you want to rap about rape and murder, hey, it's not your fault, it's mom's! Perhaps being rich and loved by millions has mellowed Eminem's vibe of raw hate, but if "8 Mile" is supposed to be his mea culpa, it doesn't cut it. Let's wait and see what his next record says.

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