Crossover Dream

Class Trumps Race in Eminem's '8 Mile'

The road in Detroit named Eight Mile is layered with meanings. It was an early surveyor's landmark; it's the border dividing the chocolate city from its ivory suburbs to the north. The MC5's "Borderline" could have been about it; Ted Nugent claimed he could smell Patti Smith's B.O. from across Eight Mile's eight lanes.

In 1974, after the city had elected Coleman Young as its first black mayor, he dropped some science that terrified those in the suburbs. "I issue a warning to all dope pushers, rip-off artists, and muggers. It's time to leave Detroit—hit the road. Hit Eight Mile Road." Sensitive suburbanites claimed he was inviting criminals to invade their brand-new neighborhoods, and they did everything they could to isolate the city and keep those abandoned buildings ablaze. On both sides of the divide, Eight Mile Road became the racial crossroads, albeit a crossroads strewn with strip clubs and party stores.

Even before there were any trailer parks, the city nurtured those who longed to cross boundaries. In 1863 a full-on race riot erupted after a man thought to be white was "unmasked" as African American, and charged with sexually assaulting two women—one white, one black. The man, Thomas Faulkner, was memorialized in this 19th-century rhyme scattered by a writer who signed his name "B. Clark Sr., A Colored Man."

Now it be remember'd that Falkner [sic] at right
Although call'd a 'nigger' had always been white,
Had voted, and always declared in his shop,
He never would sell colored people a drop.


He's what is call'd white, though I must confess,
So mixed are the folks now, we oft have to guess,
Their hair is so curl'd and their skins so brown,
If they're white in the country, they're niggers in town.

To which a viewer of 8 Mile might add, "If they're white from the trailer park, they're black after dark."

Up to now the genius of Eminem has been for short-circuiting understanding, for spotlighting the basic rhetorical rules we agree on—and then refusing to play along. You cannot disentangle his words, life, or art from one another. Sometimes he really means what he says and sometimes he's playing a part, and woe be to the outsider who can't tell the difference. Hate criminal, Bigfoot, latchkey kid, he's as much a product of the environment as any pop star could be, a great and useful monster to have on hand these past few years. But getting that person across in a movie wouldn't be easy, or likely to generate mega profits for the studio. So we get the latest version of crossover dreams.

At least Eminem's comfortable in front of the camera. Comfortable, that is, playing himself—or, bizarrely, a rewritten, reductive, and whitewashed version of himself. The general coordinates are in place—trailer home, Detroit, etc.—but the script crucially blanches the details. This is hagiography that takes advantage of a large audience to recast its hero. Eminem has been known to wave guns at foes on street corners; Rabbit pointedly barks at a buddy to put his gun away on a street corner. Eminem curses out his mother and says she's dead to him; Rabbit protects his mom when her boyfriend pushes her around. Eminem utters homophobic epithets; Rabbit sticks up for a gay guy singled out by another rapper. Eminem gulps down 'shrooms and purple pills; Rabbit has his head screwed on pretty well. Eminem learns to market his rage; Rabbit learns to control his. They have taken a question mark and turned him into a logo.

imagine entertainment honcho Brian Grazer may have got the project going, Curtis Hanson gave it a reason to exist, and Eminem brought it to life, but one more auteur hangs out in the background: 8 Mile co-producer and Interscope co-chairman Jimmy Iovine. Eminem gets under Iovine's skin. In recent years Iovine has declared white culture is over, and taken it as something of a mission to explain how race is receding as a marker of identity. Eminem is his proof that America is changing—he's not an Elvis figure, the record maker explains, because Elvis never got the kind of props in the black community that Eminem receives. Today "it's about class, not race, and hip-hop is one of the reasons," he recently told the L.A. Times.

You have to wonder if Iovine would be saying this if he didn't have Limp Bizkit and Eminem on his label, two white, hip-hop-influenced platinum acts. Or if he didn't know he was just playing charades—race is talked about all the time, while class distinctions remain taboo in a country where politicians excoriate those who "talk class warfare" and where everybody calls themselves middle class. Bringing up race can be bad for business—especially if you're white in the hip-hop world—while talking up class is a winner's game because absolutely nothing is at risk.

This gloss on race doesn't fit the real Detroit, the backdrop that keeps breaking through 8 Mile's frame. The city is a product of race politics, a place where whites bailed after riots in 1967 and left a black power structure without resources to maintain a city. It's starting to shake off decades of entropy, but color-blind it isn't and shouldn't be. How many first-run movie theaters exist within city limits? One. Maybe the producers could have built a multiplex set, and then left it behind.

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