8 MILE directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Scott Silver, produced by Hanson, Brian Grazer and Jimmy Iovine, with Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer and Kim Basinger. 115 minutes. An Imagine Entertainment Production. A Universal Release. Opens Friday (November 8). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNN
In the climactic rap battle of 8 Mile, Rabbit, the white Detroit rapper played by Eminem, freestyles that his rap is more authentic than his opponent's. He may be white trash and live in a trailer, but Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) went to prep school and comes from the middle class. It's never stated explicitly, but he's claiming, in front of a black audience, that he's blacker than his black opponent.
And once again, we tumble down the rabbit hole of American racial-cultural politics.
Spike Lee's Bamboozled delves into the subject of minstrelsy and the historical treatment of African-American performers, but misses an essential point. The minstrel show -- imitation black performers, be they whites in blackface or blacks in blackface -- is one of the central pillars of American popular culture, particularly American popular music. (For more of this argument, try Nick Tosches's great recent book Where Dead Voices Gather.)
Ignoring for the moment the quality of the production, there's not much difference between a pretty boy like Justin Timberlake performing in Michael Jackson's castoffs and a borderline psychotic like Eminem, his authenticity vouchsafe by Dr. Dre, reworking the themes of gangster rappers. "Authenticity" is a slippery concept in our culture.
And while we're on the subject, how "authentic" are the blues of Robert Cray, who grew up in middle-class suburbs in the Pacific Northwest and learned the blues off records?
In 8 Mile, Eminem plays someone much like himself, a poor white kid who lives to rhyme, grinds at a series of dead-end jobs and moves back in with his mom (Kim Basinger), who's dating a guy he went to high school with. Tired of the Jerry Springer life, he knows he has to make a move with his words.
Surprisingly, 8 Mile's a pretty good picture. Curtis Hanson's last two films were L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, and he dresses this film down visually with a rough, hand-held look.
Eminem shows remarkable presence and doesn't acquit himself badly as an actor. He holds his own in scenes with real actors like Brittany Murphy (Don't Say A Word) and Mekhi Phifer (Clockers, O). I do wonder what kind of range he has, but it's not terribly important -- he can certainly play a broody, intense loner (or, as described in the film, "a fucked-up white boy"), which is what's required here.
The film works because Hanson's direction and Scott Silver's script keep the story to the scale of the characters. The big battle at the end is just a rap contest in a little club, and when it's over, the characters are going back to work at crappy jobs in the food service industry and what's left of Detroit's industrial base.
Now that's keeping it real.