OK, to christen my new blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s Curtis Hanson’s Eminem vehicle 8-Mile. I’m sure this will be one of my most popular posts as this movie has a huge following. Probably bigger than Gymkata even.
8 Mile (2002) Directed by Curtis Hanson, Written by Scott Silver
Tagline: Every moment is another chance to turn it around.
What it’s about:
Eminem portrays B-Rabbit, an aspiring white rapper who at the beginning of the movie moves back into a double wide at the 8 Mile Mobile Home Court in Detroit with his younger sister, unemployed single mother (Kim Bassinger of LA Confidential), and her shiftless boyfriend (Michael Shannon of Shotgun Stories). Rabbit works at a bumper stamping mill and spends his nights driving a beat up car full of his big dreaming (and slightly self-delusional) friends around (including Future, played by the great Mekhi Phifer of Lie To Me) shooting cop cars with paintballs, brawling, and scrawling rhymes on bits of napkins. Future wants Rabbit to enter and win the extemporaneous rap battle at the local underground hip hop club, The Shelter, but in the opening scene, Rabbit chokes on stage and is humiliated. The big antagonists of the movie are The Free World crew, the antithesis of Rabbit’s 313 clique, a successful bunch of up-and-comers, well dressed, sweet cars, fine girls. Led by ace rapper Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker and Real Steel), the Free World dominates the Shelter’s rap battles and generally makes life for Rabbit and his friends unbearable. Skirting the two crews is the opportunistic Wink (Eugene Byrd of Dead Man), a little glad handing twerp who often promises Rabbit the fast track to stardom via one of his innumerable dubious contacts but never delivers. A new muse enters Rabbit’s life in the shape of aspiring model Alex (played by the late lovely Brittany Murphy), who will pretty much do anything she can to attain her dreams.
Why I bought it:
A movie has to speak to me on some level for me to shell out money to put it in my collection. Now those who follow this blog may wonder what the hell a movie about underground hip hop battlers has to offer a guy who mainly writes horror and westerns.
Well, my formative years in high school I spent listening to hip hop. It was the new musical form – how could a forward thinking young man like myself not become enamored by it? Those who disparage hip hop or really any form of music usually haven’t spent any time or effort exploring the best it has to offer (I’d recommend A Tribe Called Quest, GangStarr, or The Pharcyde as a good jumping in point). My least favorite genres of music still contain the occasional gem I can appreciate. I’ve never really been moved by Reggae, but Desmond Dekker wailing ‘The Israelites’ gets me every time. And I have no fondness for Jazz music as a whole, but I recognize the genius of Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan, and Billie Holiday.
8-Mile’s fascinating glimpse at underground rap battles is almost worth the price of admission alone. This is a phenomenon that harkens back to the Delta blues practice of ‘cutting heads,’ when two buskers would set up across the street from each other and play and wail, sometimes disparaging the other guy. Whoever the crowd flocked to was the evident winner, and the loser packed up his guitar and moved on. In a rap battle, the job is to cut the other guy verbally down to size and entertain the crowd at the same time. Whoever elicits the most ‘oos’ with their combination of lyrical aptitude and cleverness is the winner.
I love nearly everything about 8 Mile, and I came to respect Eminem much more than I had prior to seeing it. At the time this movie came out Eminem was a superstar. His talent in that regard is undeniable. Listen to ‘Lose Yourself,’ ‘Run Rabbit Run,’ or ‘8 Mile’ if you think he only spouts violent anti-gay misogynistic crap. You’re frankly mistaken.
For his first (and to my knowledge only) movie role, Eminem could’ve played anything he wanted. He could’ve been a poon-dogging superpowered secret agent from Venus in a frat humor rom com crapfest (I know for a fact he was artist J.G. Jones’ inspiration for the main character of Mark Millar’s ultraviolent comic book-turned action movie ‘Wanted.’). I’ve heard the critique that this wasn’t much of a stretch for him as an actor, but I have to admire that he chose to play a diamond in the rough character who vomits out of sheer fright and then freezes cold his first time on stage – right when we meet the character. Clearly the guy checked his legendary (and maybe undeserved?) ego at the door. For Eminem having something of a loud-mouthed stage persona, Rabbit doesn’t say a whole lot, but he’s always thinking. You can see it. And when he does do something, or does explode, well, I hate to make the comparison as it will undoubtedly turn some people off (and probably wouldn’t be well-received by Eminem himself due to the racial implications that have been leveled at him in the same way as The King), but he really reminded me of a young Elvis Presley memorably smoldering and sneering his way through Jailhouse Rock.
I recently read a blog, possibly on Cracked.com, where the author bemoaned the tendency of 80’s movies like The Karate Kid and Rocky to show the road to success in terms of a three minute montage that sugar coats the fact that in order for the main characters of those respective movies to actually triumph, they would have to do about a thousand times the amount of work depicted. 8 Mile doesn’t sugar coat.
After the climactic rap battle, Rabbit’s friends ask him what he wants to do next, and he says ‘I gotta get back to work’ and promptly goes off to catch the bus back to the bumper stamp mill. The penultimate triumph of 8 Mile is just a stepping stone in Rabbit’s journey. There’s still a hell of a lot of work to do after the credits roll, but it’s to the strains of the wonderful and well-deserved Oscar tune ‘Lose Yourself,’ so we can imagine that Rabbit stuck to it, that he eventually made it.
I have never aspired to being a hip hop performer, and I’ve never peeled my drunken mother off the floor of a cluttered double wide trailer in Detroit, but I know what it means to hunger for a dream, to fill my head with that dream nearly every waking moment, and to be so goddamned disappointed when the world around me and the people in it fall short of that dream, particularly due to my own failings. You can see that hunger in Rabbit’s eyes throughout this movie, and he’s such an underdog that you can’t help but be carried along with him. The other great inspiring rap movie I would draw comparisons to is the excellent Hustle And Flow, but the fact that Terrence Howard’s character is a pimp draws a line in the sand that I can’t entirely mentally cross. With B-Rabbit though, a grey clad loser who carries his clothes in a garbage bag, I can totally empathize.
You can also see Rabbit change. In the beginning of the movie he makes excuses to his boss about being late for work, usually around the phrase ‘it wasn’t my fault.’ Toward the end he makes a conscious effort to eliminate that phrase from his speech at one point in mid-sentence (‘Yo it wasn’t….it won’t happen again.’). Part of the theme of 8 Mile is finding and accepting the truth about yourself and not treading water on hope and pipe dreams alone. A lot of the characters in 8 Mile are self-delusional. Rabbit’s mother thinks things will get better as soon as her nominal live-in boyfriend’s ‘settlement check’ comes in. Wink thinks he can dole out the big breaks on the strength of his own bullshit. Papa Doc, for all his gangster posturing, went to a private school in a good neighborhood and is content to rest on his laurels (we never even see his much vaunted skills in action). None of these characters realize the dream takes work – a LOT of work.
There’s another bit in 8 Mile I love. The music. All the diagetic music is pretty great era hip hop by Gangstarr, Nas, The Pharcyde, Method Man, etc. But the Eminem music is confined entirely to non-diagetic intrumentals. There are two times when Eminem’s music is used, both times when Rabbit is shown writing on his scraps of paper. We hear the beats and snatches of the refrains of ‘Run Rabbit Run’ and ‘Lose Yourself,’ but the songs never play in full in the course of the movie. We’re getting glimpses into Rabbit’s genius, a lyrical mastery that’s still rough and un-honed, unproven. As an audience, we only have Future’s constant assurance that Rabbit is any good, plus one or two halting but promising displays in the lunch line at work and screwing around with his friends. Throughout the movie he’s just a wannabe, but by the end he finds his legs – and what a great and inspiring moment that is.
Sure it’s not without flaws. The love interest is a tad weak and kind of leaves you hanging, and the resolution of the mother’s story is a bit convenient. I’ve also heard it said that the friendship Rabbit strikes up with a gay coworker might’ve been intentionally crafted to patch things up between Eminem and the gay community (he’d gotten into some trouble for the perceived anti-gay content of some of his songs), but without that knowledge, it plays out fine. It’s still a top notch movie.
Best bit of dialogue:
After discovering Alex having sex with Wink on a soundboard at the radio station (ostensibly to further her career), Rabbit punches his ex-friend out and goes home to find the bloodied Wink and the entire Free World crew waiting for him. They jump him and beat the crap out of him in front of his shrieking little sister (tellingly, Rabbit doesn’t lift a finger to defend himself against them – his physical quarrel was entirely with Wink and he’s already satisfied). That night his mother, having just lost her meal ticket boyfriend, wins a couple grand at bingo and comes home (in what in my opinion is the weakest bit of character writing in an otherwise fairly strong story – she should’ve gone out and found a job) having decided to turn a new leaf. As she sets out to make what we presume is the first dinner for the kids in a long time, she turns to Rabbit and looks at him as if for the first time.
Rabbit’s Mom: Did you mean what you said about doin’ that demo with Wink?
Rabbit: No…I’ma do it on my own.
Rabbit’s Mom: You know, Rabbit? I think that’s the best way.
Easily the climactic rap battle. This is the fight at the end of Rocky, Luke vs. Vader, the gunfight in the graveyard between Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes. The rest of the movie has been a slow burn leading up to this confrontation, and this scene doesn’t disappoint. In a seedy, close packed room full of blue-lit angry faces and bobbing heads, Rabbit finally finds his voice on stage and burns his way through the two lesser MC’s of the Free World crew, coming head to head at last with Papa Doc. A toss of the coin forces Rabbit to go first (usually the disadvantaged position, because you can’t respond to whatever the other guys says) and what happens next is really Patton-esque in terms of audacity and tactical brilliance. Bearing out the movie’s themes of truth and self-awareness/acceptance, Rabbit cathartically and self-deprecatingly throws everything wrong with own his life in Papa Doc’s face with all the unbridled fury Eminem packs into his rhyme delivery –
‘I am white
I am a fuckin’ bum
I do live in a trailer with my mom
I did get jumped by all six of you chumps
…And Wink did fuck my girl
I’m still standin’ here screamin’ fuck the Free World!
…Don’t ever try to judge me, dude
You don’t know what the fuck I been through….’
Then Rabbit proceeds to ‘out’ Papa Doc as a privileged youth from a healthy family in a well-to-do suburb (a big no no considering Papa Doc has postured as the biggest gangster around, even waving a pistol in Rabbit’s face at one point), and winds it all up by tossing the mic offhandedly to Papa Doc, shouting – –
This leaves the previously rocking room in stunned silence and Papa Doc entirely dumbfounded, without a bit of ammunition to use against him. He necessarily forfeits and Rabbit wins.
Like I said, brilliant.
Would I buy it again? Yes.
NEXT IN THE QUEUE: 300