In 2002, Curtis Hanson lensed a film that wasn’t exactly about Eminem. Well, at any rate, it wasn’t about an Eminem his millions of fans had known prior. In his lyrics, Em had written with vitriol about his parents and his daughter’s mother, usually exaggerated for comic effect. On the other hand, there isn’t a ton of humor in 8 Mile, even though each of those real-life people inspires the movie on one level or another. That’s a major discrepancy if you want to call this an “Eminem movie,” a term Marshall Mathers himself didn’t care for. As he would spit 11 years later, he’s not a rapper, he’s an adapter. Here, in his only lead movie role, he adjusted his popular persona (mocking, nihilistic, and drug-addled) to fit the role of an equally complex character. How do both relate to his image in 2014, as he prepares to headline Lollapalooza?
The plot – written by Scott Silver and well-executed despite Hanson’s relative unfamiliarity with hip-hop — is obviously a slice of parallelism. Biggie, Mobb Deep, and the Wu-Tang Clan are on the radio while Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith is struggling to maintain any semblance of stability. Toting a symbolic trash bag of clothes at the outset of the movie, he moves from unsatisfying job to unsatisfying job, trying to jump-start a music career via Detroit’s underground battle rap scene. He has trouble showing his smarts to the rest of the world, but there’s always the feeling that eventually Rabbit will crack the code, either winning a record deal — he’s saving cash for studio time — or finding clarity elsewhere. The vaguely triumphant outcome is never in doubt.
For Rabbit (who appears without the tattoos of the real Marshall Mathers), it’s tough growing up as an outsider on the Detroit side of 8 Mile Road. There is exactly one other white guy in Rabbit’s small circle, the clueless Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones). Cheddar Bob is hilarious. It’s as if he aimlessly found himself in Detroit one day, decided to stay, and is now with this motley crew because he begged to be in their camp. His very presence, in turn, makes it clear how confused Rabbit’s life would be if he didn’t have considerable belief in his talent, his drive.
There is still an element of doubt, of stuckness, that makes 8 Mile feel urgent. Rabbit isn’t getting a lot of support apart from his boys. He lives in a trailer park-y trailer park with his confrontational mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger), his young sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield), and Stephanie’s perpetually drunk, uncomfortably young boyfriend Greg (Michael Shannon playing a Michael Shannon character). Nothing is going right in this household until Stephanie wins $3,200 at bingo one night, and there’s still a feeling that the money will only go so far.
Even the movie’s memorable sex scene – mostly clothed coitus between Rabbit and the promiscuous Alex (Brittany Murphy in one of her strongest performances before her death in 2009) — takes place at the warehouse where Rabbit mind-numbingly works. Beginning hardly a minute (real time) after Rabbit and Alex have their first flirtatious conversation, it’s one of the film’s rare moments of instant gratification.
Elsewhere, everything is earned. Rabbit is booed off stage when he freezes up on the mic at The Shelter, the venue that actually played host to Em’s early performances. He writes material on the city bus because his car keeps breaking down. Over time, as friends like battle host David “Future” Porter (Mekhi Phifer) and Cheddar Bob instill confidence in him, Rabbit develops his plan of attack for competing: a combination of obvious hunger, coldness, and, most important, lightning wit. None of this comes easy.
Part of that has to do with his inherent disadvantages. Not only is he white, but he lives in a trailer park. Even though flyness is part of the rap game, he generally looks drab as a big fan of one gray beanie. He’s reserved, rarely smiling unless he’s mocking “Sweet Home Alabama,” say. He’s even referred to as a Nazi (worse than the Elvis cracks) because of his temper and otherwise saturnine demeanor. He shoves someone every two minutes or so, and his catchphrase is “fuck you!”; worse, he lacks foresight regarding his opponents’ own anger. Once, at home with Lily, he’s outnumbered on the receiving end of a beatdown that culminates with the glock of the phoney Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) to Rabbit’s head.
There are other rappers in the movie, including Xzibit, Proof (R.I.P.), and Obie Trice, but Rabbit is generally fearless whether he’s at The Shelter or freestyling on his lunch break. It’s significant that his talent is not yet manifesting in a music studio (back to reality, Em’s debut album, Infinite, came out in 1996), because battle rap is just that: a battle between two opponents and their words. Things get personal, and Rabbit is unproven. In his opponents’ eyes, he doesn’t deserve respect like more established rappers do. When he performs for the first time in the movie, his delivery just isn’t there. This is unsurprising given that he’d just sealed up a vomiting sesh in an extensively Sharpied bathroom — even though he had just looked ready to verbally “stab your brain with your nose bone,” as a 19-year-old Prodigy declared in the song playing in his headphones, Mobb Deep’s crawling “Shook Ones, Pt. 11”.