8 Miles and counting

Eminem's debut film is good - but why didn't the director take his star's advice and 'lose himself'?

Allison Felus

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It’s entirely possible that the qualities that make 8 Mile a brilliant movie also hold it back from greatness.

Directed by Curtis (LA Confidential) Hanson, 8 Mile is a fictionalised account of the journey that Marshall Mathers made on his way to becoming Eminem. As Jimmy ‘Rabbit’ Smith Jr, the script’s version of himself, Eminem subdues his trademark ferocity to show us a character struggling against the confines of his disadvantaged surroundings.

He lives with his mum (Kim Basinger) and baby sister Lily in a trailer park, and works in a low-paying factory job. Though a talented rapper, Rabbit is so crippled by stage fright that he can’t bring himself to compete in the rap ‘battles’ hosted at a downtown shelter by his friend Future (Mekhi Pfifer). Besides, the predominantly African-American audience at such battles want nothing to do with a white-boy rapper like Rabbit.

So can Eminem act? He’ll never do Chekhov, but his presence in 8 Mile is undeniable. He is cradled by a stunning script, and encouraged to shine by the wonderful actors around him. He is refined by Hanson’s directorial restraint, yet granted just enough wiggle room to exercise his unpredictable magnetism. True, Eminem is simply playing a version of his 1995 self, but it’s a dramatically valid version that shows him as a sensitive urban poet with a heart of gold.

The movie repeatedly frustrates our desire to see Eminem unleashed in all his verbal fury. The first shot shows his reflection in a dirty public bathroom mirror, bobbing and weaving and psyching himself up for a performance like a champion boxer. But he freezes once in the spotlight, his silence rendered all the more humiliating by the beats pulsing around him.

So for the rest of the movie he avoids the stage – as if he (or we) could ever be content with a joke rap set to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in his front yard or a few teasing put-downs rhymed around the lunch cart at work. By the time he finally consents to battle again at the climactic finish of the film, we’re gagging to hear that nasal twang creep into his voice as he raps lyrics so potent that the hip hop aficionados in the movie can no longer deny his very real talent.

It’s a great cinematic strategy, and a credit to Hanson’s sense of how to introduce Eminem the Actor to the movie-going world. The limits placed around the story allow for an emotional intimacy that never strains credibility.

Yet there’s a tidiness in the film, which suggests that the reason 8 Mile never strains credibility is because it never strains for anything, period. It doesn’t push any boundaries or go anywhere unexpected. Yes, there’s no telling what havoc a sub-par director could have wreaked – but there’s also no way of knowing what a more adventurous director (David Fincher, say, or Doug Limon) might have done. Maybe that’s the problem lurking beneath the conspicuous lack of problems thrown up by the film.

There’s a politeness in the way Hanson serves up this tour of urban blight. He takes great pains to grant all the peripheral characters their chance to voice their views. Jimmy’s unemployed and desperate single mother gives her anguished cry of, ‘what am I supposed to do?’ when the reality of their impending eviction sets in; his friend DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson) explains in an impassioned speech how it’s impossible to take pride in their neighborhood when local authorities can’t be bothered to do anything about the abandoned buildings where girls are taken to be raped; and so on.

It’s a respectable survey of lower-class life, never stooping to blame or condescension – yet it sometimes seems as if observations are being ticked off a list for the sake of cinema-savvy intellectuals who relish any opportunity to theorize about race, class and gender.

Admittedly, these are minor complaints about a very good movie. Yet Eminem’s own refrain from the film’s theme song, ‘Lose Yourself’, echoes in the back of one’s mind:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you want it
You better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity only comes once in a lifetime…

Too bad Hanson couldn’t bring himself to heed his star’s advice and get a little lost in his own passion.

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