Even Austin Powers had a full-blown Puff Daddy rap sequence in it; 8 Mile, touted as the mother of all rap movies, has none. To be sure, there is rap—8 Mile opens with Eminem mouthing rap lyrics in a decrepit bathroom in a decrepit Detroit club, and closes with Eminem winning a who-can-rap-more-to-minimal-music competition. But 8 Mile underutilizes rap rather than showcases it, and the intention is deliberate—it is Eminem’s story, his life, his struggles, and his frustrations. The whole world knows him as a famous rapper and now the world will know his story too.
It is ironic that Eminem reached his eminence in Detroit, the hometown of Motown music, known for its black music focus. Detroit inner city—the other side of 8 Mile Road separating it from the more affluent white suburbs—is the fermenting ground both for Eminem’s real and fictional rise to fame. The have-nots on this side of 8 Mile are almost exclusively black; and the racial divide in America is never clearer than when one listens to the young blacks in the Detroit ghettos; they are bitterly disdainful of white culture.
Yet, Eminem—a white man who raps like a black—has his fans here, and, what’s more, he has at least as many black fans as white. Parents go apoplectic on his lyrics, feminists hate him bitterly, and his homophobia offends many, but Eminem’s skin-color makes for more wonderment than his misanthropic lyrics. 8 Mile does not ignore this aberration, but quietly acknowledges it in the effortless bonhomie between Eminem and his black friends; it even highlights the racial question towards the end of the movie.
The way the plot goes, Eminem could have as well picked up a baseball bat and hit a homer in the ninth; the movie applies the sports film formula to rap without leaving out any of its ingredients—the initial failure, gradual awakening of will, and a triumph at the very end —and adds a girlfriend, white to boot, looking on with approval.
Losing his car, money and girlfriend, in that order, Jimmy ‘Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Eminem) moves into his mother’s trailer. His mother, Stephanie Smith (Kim Basinger), is bedding Rabbit’s high school friend and is really worried about her sex life, which she discusses with Rabbit much to his feigned embarrassment. Stephanie’s household resembles a set of relationships that would have Jerry Springer salivating on the grimy dishes in the kitchen—never mind the unpaid bills, the ramble shackle car, or the eviction notice.
The only sane person in the household is the youngest, Rabbit’s little sister, Lily (Chloe Greenfield) to whom Rabbit croons his latest lyrics, sung in the soothing tones of a lullaby. God bless this strategy; if the little girl were to hear some of Eminem’s more rousing lyrics, she would grow up real fast.
Eminem’s gang consists of what the suburban society across 8 Mile Road unkindly calls the riff-raff. They ride in cars with squirt guns trained on the sidewalks and on the occasional police patrol car. Behind the rough exterior, they are quite kindly at heart; when they see an abandoned building used as a haven for rapists and their victims, they throw gasoline in its interiors and burn it down. Of course, they are a little rough in the means they employ to better the world.
It is in the light of the burning embers that Eminem realizes his own fire for a new girl in the party, Alex (Brittany Murphy). Together they enliven an auto stamping plant—where he works—with some high-charged sex. Alex seems to be sizing him up every time she sees him, but it is not an easy relationship and, along with a neurotic mom, a dead-end job, and an uncertain future, Eminem has one more reason for bitterness towards the world in general.
But in-between his occasional sexual escapades, Eminem focus is on the battle (a term of art in the film) at the rap competition emceed by his friend, Future (Mekhi Phifer). The battle consists of verbal assaults in rap between two contestants. Like WWF events, the rule is “there are no rules.” Every kind of insult is fair game and Eminem is reminded by his fellow participants of his trailer park white trash roots (the only time in the movie that this is an issue). How Eminem overcomes his fear and the ridicule of his fellow 8 Mile denizens is the meat of the film.
Eminem does not act so much as he glowers, and to be fair, that’s exactly what the part asks of him. Never has anyone’s sweet blue eyes spewed so much venom and bitterness. Murphy (Sidewalks of New York, Don’t Say a Word) portrays the slut to perfection and is a fine sight to behold among the somewhat exhausting sights of male bravado, ubiquitous in a film like this one. Under the direction of Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) there are brawls enough to provide the flavor of how life in the darker reaches of Motown can be; the Law of the Jungle is not just a catchphrase here. 8 Mile does a competent job of portraying the gritty roots of rap.
– Nigam Nuggehalli