Crossover Dream

Class Trumps Race in Eminem's '8 Mile'

In the money scene of 8 Mile, the young white Detroit rapper Rabbit Smith (played by young white Detroit rapper Eminem) battles a series of black MCs for the night's crown. We watch him find his game face in the mirror of the men's room of a club called The Shelter, then stalk the cement halls in a quick flip of Gladiator's script. We watch him pull up his hood, psyching himself for the combat ahead. And when our hero hits the stage, the unlikely has been achieved. We feel sorry for Eminem.

He faces race baiting, flowing vast and volatile. The audience is overwhelmingly black, the badass competition is black, and they let him know what he is. The invective builds to what's got to be an explosion—race is about to burn again in a perpetually combustible city. That's what a movie that finally says race doesn't matter sets us up to think, anyway.

Two rappers get 45 seconds each to dismantle their opponent. A battery of push-button disgrace notes are hit. First up, Eminem is called "Elvis," but we'll let that one slide because it's so damned obvious, you know? (Scott Silver, 8 Mile's screenwriter and previously the director-co-writer of The Mod Squad, must have composed that one.) "Nazi," he's next called. Now we're cooking. That's pretty awful—Rabbit running with the Third Reich, the competitor raps, solely because he's the white enemy.

"Vanilla Ice," his opponent hits him with in the next verse. If there's anything worse than being hated, it's being a clown. Say what you want about Hitler, the guy knew what "word to your mother" meant.

Trying to bump Rabbit off once and for all, the enemy now brings out his weapon of mass destruction. He's wearing a wife-beater, and he's beefy enough to make the words hurt just by flexing. "Beaver Cleaver," he calls Rabbit. And of all the things the white kid is labeled, it's this one he confides to his black sidekick that most got to him. Being hated, being a fool, hey, life's real rough. Whatev. But being called middle-class, and from a happy family—you can't let shit stand and still call yourself a man.

The only guys who truly play the race card are the evil posse called the Leaders of the Free World (hello Hollywood!), led by a rapper named Papa Doc (Apollo Creed was already taken). In the final round of the battle, Rabbit wails back, exposing Papa Doc as an alum of an elite suburban private school. That coup de grâce garrotes Beaver Cleaver and rips out Papa Doc's tongue. Rabbit owns the crowd, the city, the night.

Behind all in 8 Mile (see J. Hoberman's review) is the notion that class trumps race. If you are the white Rabbit living in a trailer home just beyond city limits and you want to get respect on the microphone, you have to take your lumps same as the homeboys in the ghetto. But if you are good, the movie says, your talent and sincerity will win out. The homeboys will know your name.

How is Eminem as an actor? Better than Sinatra in Robin and the 7 Hoods, worse than Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. Worse than Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, better than Vanilla Ice in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. Better than Madonna. On the one hand, when that mechanic-from-Hamtramck nose fills the screen it's hard to see him getting romantic lead parts. On the other hand, the guy has a hard look in his eye that would kill an iceberg.

8 Mile's flimsy script is made interesting by a good director and a charismatic star. What makes it important, maybe, is its belief that race doesn't matter. Working the stamping plant during the day, hanging with an integrated and uniformly motley crew at night, Rabbit is at home in the company of his fellow impoverished. The movie doesn't just provide the trailer trash; it shows the rusty septic tank behind the trailer. Race, it says, is exploited by those who stand to gain from dividing the masses—leaders of the free world, MCs looking for an edge. Hunger defines all: It generates realness and wins over a skeptical house.

"grow up in detroit and you understand the way of all things. Early on, you are put on close relations with entropy." So writes ex-Detroiter Jeffrey Eugenides, in Middlesex. His novel's narrator is a local misfit who struggles to understand his/her sexuality. The decaying city is the perfect backdrop for a divided soul's inability to come to rest. Eugenides continues: "As we rose out of the highway trough, we could see the condemned houses, many burned, as well as the stark beauty of all the vacant lots, gray and frozen. Once-elegant apartment buildings stood next to scrapyards, and where there had been furriers and movie palaces there were now blood banks and methadone clinics and Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission." That's the Motown captured vividly in 8 Mile, a place ever imploding, and ever revealing more intense colors. For me and anyone else from Detroit, one scene will have special resonance: Rabbit's crew torches one of the hundreds of abandoned homes that dot the city. They dance around the urban ruin, chanting a hip-hop classic: "The roof's on fire." (The only thing wrong with this picture is that within three minutes you can hear the sirens. In Detroit they'd have time to chant the whole damn album.)

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