Sports movies, movies like “Remember the Titans”, “Any Given Sunday”, “Rocky”, etc., conform to a strict formula in which the 1st half of the 1st act will tell you exactly how it will end, namely, your team will win, your player will overcome insurmountable odds and/or personal demons, competitors will be defeated. Now, we aren’t saying how “8 Mile” ends (we can’t be doing such a thing), but it is a sports movie.
How, you may ask, can a picture about rap music be a sports movie? It is because the writer, Scott Silver (“The Mod Squad”) made it one by creating a rap music contest. Sports? Contest? Got it.
Now, consider how clever this is. Here is the best selling, most galvanizing rap artist on the planet who wants to cut some new tracks as an actor in a major movie. Not only is he the top man on the pole, he’s a white man in a black man’s art form. Is this a unique take, or what?
So, what do these clever writers do? They create a character for Eminem who is pretty much Eminem hisself and put him in a crushingly oppressive section of Detroit called 8 Mile (identified by a trailer park sign) in which just about every other family except our hero’s is black (there’s a token hispanic or two). Small wonder then, that Jimmy Smith, Jr (aka, Bunny Rabbit, B-Rabbit, Rabbit, Jimmy Rabbit) (Marshall “Eminem” Mathers III) is surrounded by and travels in the company of his crew, his close chums who know and admire him because they pretty much grew up together, through high school and beyond. You take the color aspects away and you have a posse of buddies, not brothers.
One of them, inaptly named Future (Mekhi Phifer, contributing outstandingly), emcees the rap competition at the local club and is Jimmy’s most ardent fan, relentlessly pushing him to compete in a contest his talent is sure to make him king of the local circle. The contest itself is two on two, elimination style, as in tennis and, instead of speeding balls over a net this is speeding wit made into angry rap aimed at the opponent on stage. What scores with the audience is the clever putdown, the excruciating verbal slash whether true or gross or mere exaggeration in street lingo. In the first of these onstage combats, Jimmy freezes and marches off the stage, apparently to express the non-conducive atmosphere to his inner muse.
In fact, it does establish a certain purity of loneliness that an artist struggles with. It also puts into question the importance of winning such a contest, and this is one of the prime weaknesses of the film.
In any case, Jimmy’s cowardice in the eyes of the audience is not the interpretation of those who know him. Future keeps encouraging him for the next contest and all the chums refuse to be disillusioned. They continue to talk trash and record deals with undiminished anticipation, carrying on a tradition of hopes built on self-bolstering fantasy.
Jimmy’s reality — one he’s not at all happy about — is that he doesn’t have enough money to live alone and continues to make do in mom Stephanie’s (Kim Basinger) trailer home. The misery of this is emphasized by the humiliation of coming home to mom fornicating with her current boyfriend (Michael Shannon), there for all the sex and home cooking he can exploit. She, sadly, sees her new beau as a potential savior since he told her he’s expecting a settlement check. No promises, mind, but she pathetically hopes to move off to better pastures with him when it arrives.
The light in this tunnel of Jimmy’s life is his little sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield), whom he cherishes and protects.
Jimmy’s love life is in shambles since he left his girlfriend (Taryn Manning) who may or may not be pregnant, but is rescued from any long length oblivion of celibacy by flashy, somewhat trashy Alex (Brittany Murphy) who puts her eye on him. Having never heard him rap, she is convinced of his talent and big future by the jive on the street. Whatever, it gets physical quick enough.
Every sports picture has to have a primary competitor as every drama has a villain. In this case it’s the Free World crew, a sociopathic set of Detroit hustlers, led by Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie), the winner of the rap competition that Jimmy walked away from. This gang doesn’t take kindly to suggestions that they might be losers and think nothing of a bit of sadistic, stereotypical violence to make their point on the only guy who could threaten their crown.
The degradations of the landscape, the constantly threatening sociology, the soil in which talent must bloom, all this is harnessed effectively by Curtis Hanson (“Wonder Boys”, “L.A. Confidential”) to make Eminem, in his first movie role, a vulnerable, winsome, sympathetic character. This is not only smart moviemaking, it’s incredibly knowing starmaking. Not since “Rocky” brought Silvester Stallone to virtually instant stardom has there been a more effective attempt to repeat the phenomenon. Here, we have a crossover star with so natural a gift of presence and self assurance that he can march through moments of defeat with steady conviction and no fear. It’s a first movie and a parallel conquest. It’s an audience-widening feat and we, who are not rap fans at all, enjoy the victorious celebration at the boxoffice of a new presence on the movie screen that is nothing less than endearing.
If the ability to do spontaneous rap doesn’t get you, if the steady gentleness of the character doesn’t either, his seemingly genuine love for his little sister should decimate any negativity you might harbor for this pop star cum leading man. Plus, there could be some insight here into what might be actual parallels in Eminem’s early years. He might actually write lyrics in chaotic order on random sheets of paper just as he depicts himself doing as Jimmy Rabbit.