Eminem's own songs Loose Yourself, White America, Cleaning Out My Closet, Sing for The Moment and When the Music Stops perhaps best illustrate the storyline and themes that underline the restrained and surprisingly Hollywoodesque film 8 Mile. These songs paint vivid lyrical pictures of young men trying to break away from their roots to a better, more meaningful life.
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In addition to this, the North American one-sheet movie poster for 8 Mile is also telling, as it portrays a lone Eminem hunched over, surrounded by darkness, scribbling lyrics onto his bare hand. Its a lyrical image all of its own and as the film's tagline reads, "Every moment is another chance," the film's raw and all too honest message is sent out towards its viewer.
And even the film's title, 8 Mile is representative of a greater whole. The title is a term that is representative of both the literal and psychological dividing line between the poorest of white and black communities of Eminem's native town of Detroit, Michigan.
In 8 Mile, a film that unfortunately feels somewhat uninspired, timid and even tepid at times, a surprisingly restrained Eminem leads an interesting and diverse cast through a deeply personal and harrowing journey that is all too often shared by so many young, poor Americans. And unlike the staunch, brutal lyrics of the film's rap star, the film stands as an accessible portrait of another level of society that is seldom seen by the rest of America, and it is one of destruction, destitution, poverty, heartache and the anarchy of the soul. Overall, the direction under Curtis Hanson is fine, and the acting is great, even if the characters aren't as well drawn as they could have been in the script. The film is technically very well done, but at the same time, it is missing something, a little spark of realism that could've pushed it into the realm of simply amazing.
But like so many of Eminem's own songs, there is no doubt that the story behind 8 Mile does parallel that of Marshall Mathers III, aka Slim Shady, aka Eminem. Set in 1995, the story revolves around Eminem's character, Jimmy Smith Jr., aka Bunny Rabbit, aka B-Rabbit, aka Rabbit, a young poor and destitute Detroit citizen, who listens to rap and scribbles lyrics in his spare time. He is a product of the streets, and deep in his heart he hopes to escape to something more. Overall, Eminem brings a strong performance to the screen in 8 Mile, and even if he never makes another film and just keeps on singing - he is a force to be listened to, in all his varied textures of emotions.
In a kind of anti-poetry-slam of hip hop darkness atmosphere, the movie opens on our central character at a rap battle, a weekly event where local rappers, gangs and inner-city kids hang out, and he prepares to compete. And yet, as he gets up on stage, as one of the few white men in the room, he freezes and is ultimately booed off stage. It's a powerful scene, and Eminem gives a powerful performance of anger mixed with anxiety, frustration and angst.
Across the arch of the film, the entire weight of his world bears down on Rabbit, as he goes from his broken trailer park family, to his associations with the gangs on the street, to his job at a local factory - the world of Rabbit is nothing to be envious of. And in spite of his early fear, it comes across loud and clear that Rabbit is special and gifted in the art of wicked rap rhymes. There seems to be multiple ways out of his situation: winning the rap battles, to trying to buy time to cut a demo in the hopes of getting yourself by industry pros, and the film constantly questions whether or not he will survive? It asks, will he escape the nightmarish landscape of inner-city Detroit? Will he mend his relationship with his mentally unstable mother? Will the next moment be another chance? And how the film answers these questions isn't always clear as some threads do go unexplored, as they most likely do in real life as well. And that's perhaps the most poignant thing about 8 Mile, the fact that Rabbit's future is unclear. The film clearly show that the unparalleled successes of the real Eminem just aren't met by most young people in the real world.
But from one standpoint, the film fails to deliver any lividly strong message or true social satire. Given the powerhouse lyrics of rapid-fire Eminem, part of me was expecting some sort of satire to come through on the big screen. And yet, when viewed from another standpoint, the film does paint an honest picture of what life is like for many lower-income families who scrape their way through life across North America's inner cities. And yet it seems too Hollywoodized, and fails to be as dark and dangerous as the atmosphere of the world they live in. I'm not sure, but perhaps because it is Eminem, Kim Bassinger, Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer, there is a separation that occurs, that pulls the characters away from the all-too-real events that they are there to portray. Or perhaps it isn't as dark as it appears to be. You and me maybe scared to walk through inner-city Detroit, but for these kids, it's their home, and it's something they've come to grudgingly accept. But luckily, they live in a world where music is an outlet and an escape. It's not a perfect answer, but it's there. Like packing knives or guns, it's just another method of survival.
Tupac Shakur wrote a very interesting lyric that appears in the prologue to The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry called Voices from Outlaw Heaven. Written in 1992, the poem itself is called In the Event of My Demise and it reads:
When my heart can beat no more
I hope I die for a principle or a belief that
I have lived for
I will die before my time because I already feel
the shadow's depth
So much I wanted to accomplish before
I reached my death
I have come to grips with the possibility and
wiped the last tear from my eyes
I loved all who were positive in the event
of my demise.
Tupac's poem holds a dark realism, and aptly captures what so many young people are reaching for. And Eminem himself conveys similar messages in his own song, Sing for the Moment: "They say music can alter moods and talk to you, but can it load a gun up for you, and cock it too? / Well if it can, then the next time you assault a dude, just tell the judge it was my fault and I'll get sued / see what these kids do is hear about us totin' pistols and they want to get one cuz they think the sh!t's cool / not knowin' we really just protectin' ourselves, we entertainers, of course the sh!t's affectin' our sales, you ignoranus / but music is reflection of self, we just explain it, and then we get our checks in the mail. It's f*cked up ain't it? / How can we come from practically nothing to being able to have any f*ckin' thing that we wanted / That's why we sing for these kids, who don't have a thing except for a dream, and a f*ckin' rap magazine / who post pin-up pictures on they walls all day long, idolize they favorite rappers and know all they songs / or for anyone who's ever been through sh!t in their lives, till they sit and they cry at night wishin' they'd die / Till they throw on a rap record and they sit, and they vibe. We're nothin' to you but we're f*ckin' sh!t in they eyes / that's why we seize the moment try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it, cuz we consider these minutes golden / and maybe they'll admit it when we're gone. Just let our spirits live on, through our lyrics that you hear in our songs."
Lyrics like this really show just how important music is for these young people. It's an escape. And rappers like Eminem and Rabbit are revolutionaries in their own right. Rising up and singing by shouting out about the glaring realities of our lives. They shouldn't be dismissed because they are our John Donne's and Jonathan Swifts of our times. They satirically speak out about the wrongs of our society, showing its inequities and its problems. They challenge our kids to question the world they live in and to strive for something more. At their best, their lyrics are dark and violent on purpose, as they make you laugh and they make you uncomfortable at the same time. In the end, they have the power to make you think.
And in what will undoubtedly be strange and unsettling for most North Americans, I would suggest that 8 Mile is really about the importance of family, friends and the need for the fundamental and most basic survival of these values. The bonds between Rabbit and his friends, his Mother and his sister are strong and important, in spite of all their problems. Their lives aren't perfect, but in the end, they are all reaching for something and try for something better. One has to wonder where they would be if only they had a little help from the communities and leaders around them. One has to think that maybe North America would be a better place. But some people are just too busy fighting wars and worrying about the price of oil. When one considers this world, 8 Mile does convey this.
But in the end, I just can't help but think that 8 Mile is just too timid for its own good. It does aim for a middle ground and as a result, it isn't as powerful as films like Natural Born Killers or A Clockwork Orange. 8 Mile never gives any real ideas (that could be) nightmares for white parents. And I have no doubt that the producers of 8 Mile kept it low-key on purpose. They knew and understood that films like Natural Born Killers were just too easily dismissed by those they were trying to reach. As a result, they failed to reach a greater whole because of their gritty violence and satiric realism regarding their subject matters. Perhaps someday a sequel could be made to 8 Mile, one that explores what can happen when one of these inner-city kids finally does make it - but then, maybe we don't need that story because we've already lived it, through Eminem himself.
In the end, I truly believe that poetry is about poetry, it's about art and words and language. 8 Mile is a film about the most basic reasons for the creation of art: as a medium of survival. These kids love the music and the words for what they represent and for the escape they can provide. I still don't know if I really enjoyed 8 Mile but it is a whole other world, and it's one that I want to visit again because it is a world that cannot be ignored. 8 Mile deserves to be seen and it deserves to be talked about.
(Movie originally reviewed on November 8, 2002)
- Steven H. Lee, November 8, 2002
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