8 Mile is a movie about hip-hop and hope. It is about abandoned buildings and broken down cars. It is about race. It is about how “poor” has no color. It is about Detroit, and the street that separates the city from the suburbs.
And, yes, it is a movie about Eminem. But, thankfully, not too much about Eminem.
Directed by the unlikely Curtis Hanson, 8 Mile is one of the most anticipated films of the season. Partly because critics have been foaming at the mouth to see if Slim Shady actually could pull off this acting thing and partly because the movie has been postponed for so long. Trailers for 8 Mile started showing up in theaters in January with a March release date. But Hanson knows all too well that movies released in the spring are hardly ever considered for Oscars. Hanson’s two previous movies, L.A Confidential and Wonder Boys, came out in the spring, and neither got much respect from the Academy.
By moving 8 Mile to November, Hanson and producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) made a huge statement. They were saying that this film is worthy of an Oscar. And they may have a point.
With the highly respected Hanson and Grazer at the helm, 8 Mile really only had one hurdle to overcome to make it a true Oscar contender: making all that Eminem baggage disappear in the story. And that’s exactly what happens.
Eminem, the controversial superstar, is invisible right from the start of the film. The opening sequence shows the rapper, bouncing up and down in front of a mirror, hyping up for a rhyming “battle.” Obviously this isn’t a stretch for Eminem. Just about everything in the script has some connection to the rapper’s own life. But in the suspense leading up to the battle, something strange happens. Viewers actually get the feeling that this mouthy white kid with a penetrating stare is going to lose. Eminem becomes the little guy, the underdog. He becomes a character in a movie – a character named Rabbit, of all things. Throughout the remainder of the movie, there are times when Eminem’s performance can be downright good. It’s difficult, though, to decide who should get the credit: Hanson, who has made mediocre actors look extraordinary before, or Marshall Mathers himself, who was reported to be all business on the set.
To be fair, not everything in 8 Mile corresponds exactly to the troubled life Eminem fans are so used to hearing. For one thing, Rabbit’s mom (Kim Basinger) is not a total villain. She has her rough moments, but overall, she’s a good person. And Basinger isn’t too bad either. The last time she was in a Hanson film (L.A. Confidential), she won an Oscar. Don’t be surprised if she gets nominated for this one.
Another way 8 Mile succeeds is in offering a full supporting cast, which helps to take the “Eminem life story” feel away. In the first half hour, the film seems more like a buddy flick than anything. In one early scene, Rabbit and his crew of “Three One Thirds” (313 is Detroit’s area code) pack into a dumpy car and cruise down the street armed with a paintball rifle. Though Rabbit takes the last shot, the scene is about the group, not the individual. This carries on throughout the film.
Mekhi Pfifer plays Future, Rabbit’s closest and most paternalistic ally. He’s always pushing Rabbit, and looks out for him whenever potentially sour deals come wrapped in sweetness. Future hosts the battles, signing Rabbit up for each one whether he wants to participate or not. And in what is perhaps the best scene of the entire film, Future chides Rabbit, freestyling to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama” while Rabbit wrenches away at his broken-down car in the middle of a trailer park.
Pfifer and Eminem seem to have even more on-screen chemistry than Eminem and his love interest, played by Brittany Murphy. Eminem and Murphy do have a great sex scene, but, overall, the relationship isn’t given the same importance in the film as that between Rabbit and Future.
So, with all these elements to keep the story grounded, is 8 Mile worthy of a Best Picture nod? Not really. But worse films have won before.
It is, however, worthy of a $6 admission ticket and at least a few other nominations, which is more than can be said about most hip-hop/hope/social commentary/industrial wasteland films.
Contact Dustin Dwyer at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘8 Mile’ opens Friday and is rated R