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Jordan Hiller on Film

8 Mile (2002)

8 Mile

In rap, there is no room for reinvention. Christina Agiullera can produce one album as a choir girl and the next as a sewer fiend and that’s well and good because in the pop world, reinvention of the artist is a survival technique. Rap, by nature, needs to be authentic. The medium is so inherently angry and arrogant and spirited that the slightest twinge of phoniness, whether in lyric or in street-credibility, will corrupt the music irreparably. You must rap who you are and lesson one is, as the mantra goes,” keep it real”. If you reinvent, you acknowledge falsehood, and all is lost. Reinvention is admitting, “I was once like this, but now (because I sense what the public might want) I am completely different.” When Snoop and Dre come back after a hiatus and profess: We’re doing the same stuff we did back when The Chronic made you bounce – we’re still smokin and drinkin and murderin and pimpin – the rap world accepts that because they didn’t reinvent. They kept it real. They’re authentic.

So now we come to Eminem, a rap enigma technically representing Dr. Dre, who appears to be appealing to both sides of the rap/pop fence. You’ll hear his music on true rap station like WBLS in New York as well as sellout graveyard Z100. Eminem has always represented himself in such a way that allows the crossover affect. His authenticity was always in question due to the color of his skin. Now with 8 Mile, his credibility comes to a pass and the public is watching for that flash of sincerity where Marshall Mathers will be revealed in a light of truth – perhaps the curtain will be pulled back. By the end of the film, Eminem remains a character ill-defined. The possibilities for interpreting the man are as diverse as black and white.


After hearing Slim Shady’s debut back in 1998 where he kept annoyingly repeating, “My name is”, I told my roommate Marc, an avid rap and hip-hop fan, that this Eminem fad won’t last a year. Marc disagreed. He was right. To me, the boy seemed soft like a pop-music vanilla ice cream cone. He didn’t sound like he was rapping, but rather singing. If I can actually understand your lyrics well enough to remember and repeat them, something is seriously lacking in your skillz. His lines were comically cute with a very mechanical edge. Oooh, he wants to impregnate a Spice-Girl. Oh my, his mother smokes more dope than he does. He seemed like a corporate product, calculatingly using four letter words and dropping obvious celebrity insults to a achieve a specific purpose, infamy and the publicity ($) that goes with it. His white skin alone, despite the callousness, muffles his ability to truly offend white America and that is why he is the ideal cog in a money making machine. The white media can latch on to him and celebrate him as one of their own (i.e. they aren’t petrified of him like they are of black rappers), white kids can moderately rebel by buying his CD’s, and his baby face can grace the cover of Entertainment Weekly and sales will not drop like they would if you saw Nelly up there.

This very assembly line musical star churns out what is an assembly line movie. Why have Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) direct the film when John G. Avildsen is a much more obvious choice. Avildsen has already told this story once before, practically twice. In his film, The Karate Kid, a young friendless outsider being raised by a low income single mother is beaten at the outset of the film by a band of bullies, gains confidence through adversity and experience as the film progresses, and is poised for greatness in the final scene where he overcomes the bullies and beats the odds. Avildsen also directed the similarly themed Rocky and similarly named 8 Seconds.

In 8 Mile, Daniel LaRusso, I mean Jimmy “Bunny Rabbit” Smith is considered by his friends to be a prodigy – a lyrical genius. In the opening scene he is embarrassed by Johnny Lawrence, I mean Papa Doc, the head of a rival rap gang called Cobra Kai, I mean Free World – I’m gonna stop doing that. The point is that, step by step, this is the same story. Only difference is substitute rich girl cheerleader Elisabeth Shue with extremely slutty Brittany Murphy as the love interest, wise and motivational Mr. Miyagi for streetwise and motivational Future (Mekhi Phifer), and depictions of middle to lower class Los Angeles to the extreme poverty of Detroit. Don’t get me wrong, The Karate Kid is an enjoyable movie that changed my life. Do you know how many times just raising my arms above my head and lifting one leg in preparation for the crane kick sent potential muggers fleeing? Even muggers with guns and knives know that if done properly, no defense. But no one takes the movie seriously –it’s a Hollywood fantasy with a lot of heart. 8 Mile is also a fantasy – a Hollywood interpretation of the struggles of a white boy in the underground Detroit rap scene.

All the characters and all the moments are interesting and enjoyable, and that’s a problem. The movie doesn’t feel authentic and I think it’s because of all the white folks involved. Hanson, Mathers, and writer Scott Silver (1999 debacle The Mod Squad) give us a product so polished and in many ways watered down for mainstream American audiences and so devoid of the truly ugly grittiness that one would expect to be the likely reality of the situation, that 8 Mile manages to be an appealing tale of emptiness, bitterness, and hopelessness. (Supposedly, this is not an Eminem biopic and therefore we are not free to assume that Rabbit gets out of the ghetto or makes anything of his life).

One prime example of the white wash is my childhood sweetheart Kim Basinger as Rabbit’s mother. She plays a lazy, selfish, luckless woman living in a beat down trailer and fooling around with a boozing guy her son’s age hoping to score some money if he gets a settlement check. Sound like a pretty pathetic, loathsome character. But in 8 Mile she is made likable and of course as radiant as Kim Basinger. In typical Hollywood fashion, we last see her with a big smile on her face, making amends with her son, and a handful of cash after winning big at Bingo. The family is saved!!!

The movie plays out in this underwhelmingly predictable way at every turn, save one. We don’t get a sense of what life is actually like in the decrepit 8 Mile (a section of town) despite the brutally claustrophobic and somber filming locations. We get what a bunch of white Hollywood people imagine it might be like to be young, desperate, and poor and then systematically decide what to leave in and take out to make the whole thing palatable and wining. This method of storytelling may bring in the ticket buying public, but it also leaves us with a movie that is, like Daniel LaRusso’s fighting class, light-weight. 

Note: Is it just me, or is every black rapper who Rabbit challenges about ten times more believable, talented, and energizing than he is?


Eminem was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. For the first set he did a tune that had been on the radio for about a month. It went like this, “I’m Slim Shady/yes I’m the real shady/all you other slim shadys are just imitating/so won’t the real slim shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up.” Meaningless, stupid, phony, boring, catchy, accessible, easily repeatable – everything you’d expect from a white rapper. Then came the second set when Eminem appeared on stage with a beautiful young woman who later turned out to be the sweet-sounding Dido. He began a rap/song called “Stan”. It’s about an obsessive and crazed fan of the rapper who takes his devotion to a devastating conclusion, but that’s not the point. Eminem is on stage telling this story…and, Lord help me, it is passionate and powerful. The story builds – the rapper is role playing, speaking as both himself and the fan and it appears that momentum is gathering quickly and frighteningly. Eminem, as Stan, is raging so ferociously and maniacally and with such furious violence that a lump was stuck in my throat and he actually chilled me to the bone with his intensity. The performance was raw, angry, emotional, and most importantly, insightful. I said to myself, “Damn, I was wrong about this guy – I guess he does have some talent.” Truth is, you wouldn’t know he has this talent by listening to his inane pop hits being released on the radio, but I saw it with my own eyes – it is in there somewhere.

If there are authentic moments in 8 Mile it is attributable to this “real” spark that lies somewhere inside Eminem. At times he is convincing as a down trodden and depressed white kid trying to make it in a black man’s game. As an actor, the jury is still out because he is yet to play someone different from himself (or an aggrandized version of himself). To watch the scrawny white rapper mix it up with muscle bound black dudes is interesting, if not entirely believable. He looks like he wouldn’t last a minute. His eyes convey a tremendous amount of fear and sadness mixed with what appears to be a survival of the fittest attitude impressed upon him by life itself. Like the saying goes, the eyes don’t lie. I must assume that somewhere in his past he did have it rough and this shred of possibility lifts the film above a typical Hollywood contrivance. Plus, he rages in the final scene just like he did late that Saturday night, and again I was frozen.


Readers Dialogue 3: Describe ways 8 Mile is comparable to The Karate Kid or Rocky.

Send your comments to Jordan himself at



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