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.)
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.
Twenty years ago, 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson’s career took a big step forward when he co-wrote White Dog with the late Sam Fuller. That movie was a grieving, pessimistic piece that suggested we were all doomed to racial violence. However far the country has come since then, Hanson’s come even farther—now he seems to believe we’ve overcome.
Too bad Fuller wasn’t around for 8 Mile. It takes one race-obsessed anarchist mofo to know one. The old geezer would have slung so much bullshit back at the MC that Eminem’s head would still be spinning. He’d have made a much tougher, more complicated movie, one that might have actually struck the sort of terror in the heart of America that the real rapper has. And he might have wrestled with the unexamined irony at the center of 8 Mile: how a white kid could find himself in rap, and then use the music both to fit into the black city, and to help him escape its grasp.
“When I Reminisce: Hip-hop Movies Mythologize the Age of Innocence” by Jon Caramanica
J. Hoberman’s review of 8 Mile