Part of the fun of 8 Mile is guessing at who's in the lead role: Is it the real-life Marshall Mathers III, the sullen Eminem or the explosively perverse Slim Shady? Starring Mathers, aka Eminem, aka the most controversial white boy in music today, 8 Mile teases us with its billing as a semi-autobiographical account of the rapper's life, suggesting that this might be the final word on what makes Eminem so confounding, so fascinating and so enraging.
But this being Eminem, we don't come away with much biographical insight. After all, the rapper has as many stage personas as a Hydra has heads -- he even cavorted down the aisle of the 2000 MTV Video Awards with a crowd of peroxided blond lookalikes, yelling, self-referentially, for the real Slim Shady to "please stand up." Quite a piece of theater, that -- Eminem as the satanic Pied Piper of suburban mothers' nightmares, leading away their ferrety sons.
The multiple stage personalities provide a nice slipknot for Eminem, who has tried time and again to squirm his way out of controversy by saying that his nasty lyrics reflect the attitudes of his alter egos. His violent mother-killing, wife-beating, gay-bashing songs have outraged everyone from Lynne Cheney to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and watching critics scurrying to deride his "message" while slobbering over his musical talent makes for a good laugh every time he puts out a new album.
But those who try to separate Eminem's rage-spewing lyrics from the brilliant internal rhythms, verbal feints and tight hooks of his rapping are really missing the point. Eminem is good because he's talented and vile. Every angry, juvenile word rings true to something that we all recognize but try to pretend doesn't exist: the voice of hatred that too often attends hopelessness. He sketches out tales of an obsessed fan, a betrayed husband, the son of the world's worst mother in a voice that's like a mosquito whine at midnight, the dentist's drill in your ear -- an augury of bad things to come.
This is the Eminem we're interfacing with when we watch 8 Mile. And like watching Tom Cruise portray a workaholic cop (Minority Report) or Hugh Grant a commitment-phobic fop (About a Boy), there's some satisfaction in watching Eminem play someone who seems close to his heart -- a rapper whose fists fly nearly as fast as his words. Jimmy Smith Jr. (or "Rabbit," as everyone calls him) first appears in a bathroom, bouncing like Rocky before a bout. He's lip-synching, punctuating the words with hand movements he carefully checks out in the mirror. If it weren't for the sickly green lighting and dingy, graffiti-tagged walls, he could be any white, suburban teen in his bathroom, rapping along to Eminem.
The difference is, this kid is actually taking it onstage. Rabbit, you see, has come to his first freestyle battle, a place where rappers duke it out with pyrotechnic putdowns as if playing the old "Dirty Dozens" game to a beat. Your mama, your friends, your girl -- they're all fair game, so it's best to choose them wisely if you can. And Rabbit has an additional disadvantage in this crowd: As the only white man present, he's called a "wigger" and threatened with murder. He freezes, eyes wide.
It's an obligatory moment of failure -- obligatory because 8 Mile is an old-school "you go, girl (or boy, as the case may be)" movie at its heart. Forged in the same feel-good fire that made Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and even (shudder) Glitter, 8 Mile traces a familiar trajectory: young person has crappy life but big dreams, young person fails horribly, young person struggles nobly, young person triumphs in the end. But despite the plot predictability, the attempt to sanitize and whitewash Eminem's life through semi-autobiographical conventions, the grit -- the moving stuff of struggle -- shines through. This movie's a lot more dirty, harrowing and violent than the genre usually permits, with a lot more swearing to boot. Call it a portrait of the artist as a young fuck-up.
8 Mile is named after a Detroit road that separates the slums from the rich white suburbs, the road where Rabbit's blowsy mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger in a fine, frightening performance) lives in a trailer with his baby sister, Lily. Beautiful, drunken and tawdry, Rabbit's mom is the type to ask, "You OK, baby?" while holding out that most maternal of comforts: a beer. She's first seen straddling a former schoolmate of Rabbit's; he's got a big settlement check coming, and she wants in on it.
Everyone is using everyone else in 8 Mile, and Rabbit's mother is no exception. Nor is Rabbit's love interest, Alex (Brittany Murphy), an aspiring model with a loony, disquieting gaze who's looking for her own ticket out. She's that crazy/beautiful girl we know is trouble, especially in Eminem's world, where all the bitches will eventually stab you in the back.
Those who aren't trying to claw their way out are just plain stuck. Rabbit's friends are a confederacy of losers: the bright one who won't make it, the radical one, the dumb one, the fat one. The movie paints their relationships delicately -- they have nothing but the camaraderie of struggle and failure, but they have a good time anyway, cruising in a car through a Detroit that reeks of rotting dreams.
They all know how bad it is. "I live at home in a trailer," Rabbit mockingly sings, setting the words to "Sweet Home Alabama." His friend Future (Mekhi Phifer), a charismatic young black man who runs the freestyle rap contests, sings along, laughing. Race runs deep through this movie: What is Rabbit's place in the world of hip-hop? Is he just an Elvis, a Vanilla Ice, a thief who wants to co-opt black music and rhymes for money? Luckily, director Curtis Hanson cares more about the characters than he does about delivering a racial morality tale. As such, we're left to ponder the issues, and how they affect the characters, on our own.
Hanson also leaves Rabbit alone, despite the whirl of friends around him. In Eminem's utterly convincing performance, Rabbit is slack and closed off. He hoods himself, hunches beneath his clothing. But his protective posture can't conceal his searching eyes: They absorb everything. Emotions flicker across the deadpan face -- the barest whisper of a smile, the fear Rabbit has of his own rage, a capacity for violence that terrifies his cherished sister.
Luckily, Rabbit harnesses that anger through rhymes, which he pens at every possible moment on scraps of paper. In the build to the climactic final showdown, Rabbit starts to show his genius at "flipping," taking the slams of his opponent and turning them back on him like some kind of potty-mouthed aikido master.
The big payoff comes in the final battle. Rabbit's opponent launches a scathing diatribe, referencing Leave It to Beaver to imply that Rabbit is the soft product of a white-bread family. Then it's Rabbit's turn. The breakbeats spin, he pauses, then begins, "Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver," plucking polyrhythms and allusions out of thin air, eyes coming alive for the first time.
And then -- he stabs himself with his own words. "Fuck everybody!" he screams. "I'm white trash, I don't wanna win this battle, I'm outtie!" In a place where no one has anything but a street name -- Rabbit, Future, MC Bob and the whiff of hope that clings to a made-up self -- stripping away the myth can be one of the cruelest things one person can do to another. But Rabbit turns his eyes on himself, ripping away his dreams and laying claim to the despair that bleeds from his life. In one unforgettable moment, he flips it -- white trash howling in the black vernacular, turning self-hatred into an attack. I know what a shit I am, his eyes seem to say to his opponent, do you know you're a shit, too?
It makes sense that the single from this movie is "Lose Yourself." They all -- Rabbit, Eminem, Shady or Mathers -- seem trapped no matter what they say; they're all singing a song of Emself. The film tells us that Rabbit will be alone, pursuing success on his own terms. But there's redemption amid the despair, the claustrophobia of self-hatred and loneliness. In that last battle, we can see it, the hope shining through. Rabbit is crackling in his anger, spinning into a shivering moment where there is no self, there's nothing but the beats, the words -- the sound of escape.