Hip-hop’s earliest films—Wild Style, Breakin’, Krush Groove, Beat Street—were almost purely celebratory, showcases for the nascent form and its liberating effect on its young practitioners. Twenty years later, despite having moved from public parks to high society, not much has changed on the big screen. If anything, the recent spate of hip-hop films—the Eminem pseudo-bio 8 Mile, the boho-buppie love tale Brown Sugar, and the Roc-A-Fella-produced drug-hustling morality tale Paid in Full—shows that, despite what you see on BET, hip-hop is far from enamored with its own riches. Rather than celebrate the genre’s gluttonous success during the past decade, these films instead return hip-hop to a virginal, pre-capitalist state. And in so doing, it seems, the rap brain trust behind them hopes to purify its relationship with the genre it helped lead astray.
This is more than simple nostalgia for a better time in the music’s history. Were that the case, these filmic odes would salute hip-hop’s extended flirtation with political consciousness in the late ’80s, or its consequent bohemian turn in the early ’90s. The Fort Greene progressives in Brown Sugar might kneel before Common and De La Soul, but their touchstone event is a 1984 playground cipher with Dana Dane, Slick Rick, and Doug E. Fresh. In 8 Mile, a nervous Bunny Rabbit (Eminem) practices his hardcore poses in front of a bathroom mirror while Mobb Deep’s 1995 thug anthem “Shook Ones Pt. II” eggs him on. During his first battle, the beat spun by the DJ is one of the great keep-it-real tracks of all time, O.C.’s “Times Up.”
These moments of hip-hop intimacy play to the genre’s own self-conception as underdog. The hip-hop heroes here aren’t the young black millionaires of urban radio, but the humble, struggling MCs who cling to the music as a raison d’être, not a day job. In Brown Sugar, Mos Def plays a rapper who keeps it so principled he’d rather drive a cab than sign a bad deal (note to Mos: Consider life imitating art). In 8 Mile, the apex of success is victory in freestyle battles, respect in the parking lot. While all the lines are, naturally, scripted, it’s the appearance of spontaneity that gives these scenes weight.
Even in Paid in Full, less about the rise of hip-hop than about the drug scene that mirrored it in flash and aggression, the forces of capitalist evil get their comeuppance. All three of the main kingpins fall from their throne—one dead, one in jail, one badly wounded and looking for salvation. In the final scene, the latter, Ace (Wood Harris), watches a posse of hamming-it-up rappers shoot a video in front of his pals’ old late-night hang, aiming to recreate the glory of his crew at their peak. Considering that those rappers could well be Roc-A-Fella artists, this subtle self-jab shows that even hip-hop’s most important label is in on the joke.
After winning 8 Mile‘s clinching battle, Bunny Rabbit rejects the advances of Future, his black mentor and ghetto pass, to co-host the weekly rhyme competitions. Instead, he stomps down a back alley back to his night job, broke but not broken. There’s no record deal. No corruption. No disappointment. It remains one perfect, infantilized moment that never has to grow old and gray. For Eminem, it took only 18 million albums sold to get there.
“Cross Over Dreams: Class Trumps Race in Eminem’s 8 Mile” by RJ Smith
J. Hoberman’s review of 8 Mile