Daniel Randall reviews 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson
This film is nothing spectacular. Imagine Rocky with rap. Okay, it’s slightly more sophisticated than that, with a few nice comments about race and class. Ultimately, however, it’s a “poor boy made good” film albeit not as clichéd as usual as the “making it to the top” bit is left to the viewer’s imagination. Eminem’s character, Jimmy Smith, goes back to his night-shift at the Detroit Stamping Plant after winning an important rap battle.
8 Mile is a semi-biographical tale, in which Eminem plays a white working-class young man who lives on the black side of 8 Mile Road, the road which separates black from white, and rich from poor, in Detroit. Stuck in a boring dead-end job at a stamping plant, his passion and biggest talent is making hip-hop music. His best friend, Future (played by the excellent Mekhi Phifer), hosts rap battles at the local club, 3-1-3. In his first appearance there, Jimmy freezes up and runs off stage. But he’s determined and resolves to make it as a rapper. You can guess the rest.
As a devotee of hip-hop music, I appreciated the insights into the genre. One rival rapper slates Jimmy (better known by his stage name “Bunny Rabbit”) for being a “tourist”. This reflects the general hostility there is towards white rappers. To his credit, Eminem has done much to dispel such attitudes.
The comments the film make about class and race may not be profound, but they are interesting. Jimmy refuses to be ashamed of what he is, even though his rival rappers use it as ammunition against him. The message is that talent should transcend your background. We should not be confined by the restrictions of bourgeois social constructs like race.
The fact that Jimmy is exceptionally talented yet stuck in a horrendously repetitive job is another of the film’s messages. Jimmy got lucky. But what about the countless other working-class people, equally talented, who are never given the chance to develop their talent to its full potential because of the restrictions of the capitalist system? Perhaps Jimmy is an archetype for the collective talent and ability of the working class, rising up to achieve greatness while at the same time retaining humility and refusing to be ashamed of their roots. The fact that the majority of Jimmy’s friends are black and that he feels most comfortable with hip-hop — something that many consider to be a “black thing” — tells us that there’s no such thing as “black things” or “white things”. What matters is the fabric of our character, not the colour of our skin.
The film also touches on the issue of community action. A young girl is raped in an abandoned house near where Jimmy and his friends live. To try and stop it from happening again, they take matters into their own hands and burn the house down. As the flames rise higher and Jimmy’s friends dance around the burning building whooping and cheering, Alex, Jimmy’s girlfriend quips: “It’s almost beautiful, isn’t it.”
Lastly there is a topical message about gun crime: Jimmy gets into several nasty scrapes with “Freeworld”, a vicious, gun-toting gang who are the film’s obvious bad guys.
Race, class, community action and gun culture. Maybe it’s more insightful than I’d first thought? Or maybe I’m reading too much into a film that is primarily about music.
The most intriguing element of the film is the nature of Eminem’s character. Eminem himself, real name Marshall Mathers, has become famous for homophobia, misogyny and hatred of his abusive, drug-taking mother. His character in the film (it’s semi-biographical remember) is loving and caring towards his wreck of a mother, and even defends a gay co-worker who is the victim of a homophobic slur in the lunch queue. Has Eminem undergone some sort of epiphany? Are we to see a new Eminem — tolerant of all, defender of gay people, respectful to his mother, and champion of the working class? I doubt it.
The film is enjoyable, particularly to those interested in hip-hop, and Eminem’s performance is remarkably good. Up to a point the film’s message is a good one: “There’s no sin in being born in the gutter, but it’s a terrible sin to want to stay there”. A career in rap music could be one way out. Socialist revolution could be another.
Reviewer: Daniel Randall