Marshall Mathers III, better known as rap superstar Eminem, is decidedly a controversial figure. You’ve heard his detractors: he’s vulgar! violent! misogynist! homophobic! racist! That’s all hogwash. Sure, the guy’s got issues, he’s got a bad temper and apparently a lot of trouble with women (at least with his mom and ex-wife) but beyond that, a lot of what he raps about is for show. Of course it’s provocative, it’s supposed to be provocative! Eminem and rappers in general are often perceived as no-good thugs, but they’re just troubled poets. Really, how are Em’s rhymes more shocking than Rimbaud’s?
Filmmaker Curtis Hanson knows thius and it shows in “8 Mile”, his hip hop movie fronted by Mathers. Many don’t understand how Hanson could go from Wonder Boys to this, but they’re actually thematically similar. Both films are about a man passionate about words who must get his life into order to free his voice. The only difference is that while Michael Douglas’s character in Wonder Boys was a middle-aged novelist on a Philadelphia campus, Eminem plays a white trash Detroit factory worker struggling to make it as an MC.
The film’s plot is nothing new, shuffling somewhere between a show-business Cinderella story (see also: Coyote Ugly, Crossroads) and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks tug-of-war between following your dreams and-facing up to harsh reality (see also: Saturday Night Fever, Good Will Hunting, etc.). What IS different is the context in which these cliches are lined up.
Hanson’s biggest strenght as a director is how he’s able to clearly communicate a sense of a specific time and place. “8 Mile” takes place one week in 1995 across 8 Mile, the road dividing Detroit’s poor and rich neighbourghoods. We follow Jimmy “Bunny Rabbit” Smith Jr. around these mean streets, dilapidated buildings and trailer parks he’s trying to escape as he hangs out with his color-blind group of friends (led by Mekhi Phifer, who hosts “rap battles” nights), bumps heads with low-rent gangstas and his down-on-her-luck mother (Kim Basinger)… He even gets kind of a romantic interest in Alex (Brittany Murphy), a sexually assertive firecracker. All of this plays out in a raw and natural manner, and Hanson truly involves you in his movie’s world.
Eminem couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate leading role debut. “8 Mile” packs as much humor, hard truth and vitality as the rapper’s LPs, and he gets an opportunity to show more layers. He’s as charismatic and intense on screen as on record, but here we can also see the insecurity and vulnerability he hides behind his in-your-face bravado. I don’t know if he can play something else than a variation of himself, but judging from “8 Mile” Eminem’s got some serious acting chops.