Seems everyone's jumping on the 8 Mile train these days.Since Eminem's ostensibly semi-autobiographical flick opened at the beginning of November, everybody from lefty pundits to middle-American hiphop fans has been putting in their two cents on the film. The hubbub is deafening, and it fascinates me.
Why is there such a swarm of dialogue surrounding this admittedly formulaic triumph-of-the-underdog tale? Why did my white bourgeois queer-girl self have butterflies in my stomach when I walked up the multiplex escalator, sat and watched the working-class wasteland unfold?
For me, the most interesting aspect of 8 Mile isn't its gritty realism, or the statement it makes about the American political economy (a topic on which Richard Goldstein waxed eloquent in the November 12 issue of the Village Voice). It's not the urban-idiom-laden script, or the shocking revelation that, oh my god, Eminem can act! Quite frankly, the script's rife with clichés.
I'm still stuck on the opening credit sequence. Bathed in watery, greyish-blue light, we're locked in a disgusting, mildewed back-alley bathroom with the twitchy hero. It's unbearably claustrophobic. He paces, he pukes, he locks eyes with himself in the cracked mirror. "Starring Eminem," the text at the bottom of the screen reads.
That's what I'm trying to wrap my head around now. It ain't Marshall Mathers the man wowing crowds at the box office with his nuanced performance. And it's not Slim Shady, the dude's self-proclaimed fictional asshole side, the source of the voice that raps about locking his dead wife in the trunk of a car. It's Mr. Mathers's mythic hiphop persona, already a construction, wearing the mask of another very similar mythic character onscreen. It's these convoluted layers of fact and fiction that have me hooked.
Eminem's a genius because he draws on the cultural lust for moral stories. He's created a performance persona with an intricately calculated autobiography -- his ex-wife fucked him over and his mom's a lying, betraying trailer-trash bitch. Our troubling tendency is to conflate the man with the myth. The real Marshall Mathers still hasn't stood up and probably never will. It's Eminem's story that dissatisfied suburban white boys and tough b-girls know by heart; it's Eminem's story that suggests the based-on-fact fallacy of 8 Mile.
As Goldstein argues in his Voice article, Universal positioned the film to expand the rapper's audience. The original treatment, which drew on the over-the-top violence and twisted humour in some of Em's tracks, was rejected in favour of a kinder, gentler saga that paints MC Bunny Rabbit -- whose tale is perceived to be the star's own narrative -- as a virtual saint.
Similarly, Em's music draws on the power of autobiography. The tunes of homophobia-tinged obsessive fictive fan Stan seem so chilling because we assume they're true. Eminem himself tries to counter criticism by arguing that they're a form of fantastical catharsis. To paraphrase the vampy cartoon siren Jessica in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he's not really bad -- he's just drawn that way.
That's why 8 Mile is so intriguing. The rapper and his label use the film to turn frowns of disapproval upside down. The violent impulses? Rabbit wrestles guns from his foolish pals. The horrific misogyny? He's a hopeless romantic who loves his girl after she betrays him. The unapologetic homophobia? Honey, he protects his gay co-worker from bigoted assholes. Goldstein scoffs at 8 Mile's feeble attempts to assuage critics, and his disbelief is partly right. But Eminem's issues are problems that permeate rap music at large. He isn't alone, but his whiteness and crossover success situate him in the role of perpetual whipping boy.
It's that reality that makes him such a crucial pop culture figure. In terms of 8 Mile, which is set within a typically black subculture, the white protagonist prevents the film from being pigeonholed as a "black" film. Without Em on board, you'd better believe it'd run the risk of ending up like a Friday After Next or even a Love Jones, films geared specifically to black audiences. Like his music, Em's appropriation of a black form exposes the cracks in liberal consciousness.