8 Mile
***.6 GM
Starring: Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Kim Basinger, Omar Benson Miller, Evan Jones, Eugene Byrd, Taryn Manning

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Eminem. Fuckin' Eminem.

By all rights, I should HATE this guy. He's a thuggish little cretin, he's got this nasal whiny quality to his voice that should be incredibly annoying, and he's got significant violence and enlightenment issues, not to mention the fact that he's obnoxiously and obscenely popular and he looks like a marketing department's dream - a dreamy boy-band-lookin' honky with street cred enough to actually sustain life as a white rapper.

Marketing Bloke: "You know, gentlemen, this 'rap music' sells very well, but it's always performed by these terrifying black men. Think how well it would sell if an attractive young white man were performing it! It is ingenious! You have the dreamy white guy for the suburban teenage girls to fall for, and you've got the violent profanity-laden lyrics for the teenage boys to marvel at, and top it all off with misogyny and homophobia to aggravate authority figures, thus making it that much more 'hip' for the youngsters to consume rabidly! I tell you, it will WORK! Get me that doctor fellow... Dr. Dreidel... no... the one that was compatriots with Snoopy McDog Dog... Dr. Dre, yes! Get me that man on the phone, I've got some cash to throw his way, let's see if he'll back us for the right price."

This is what I should think, cynic that I am. Much like the George Carlin sentiment, whenever anything I like, believe in or do regularly becomes accepted by the general public, I begin to question my judgment. As such, I'm constantly checking myself about this Marshall Mathers fellow, noting his nauseatingly ubiquitous presence in the media as a factor that should instill contempt and a desire to ignore this guy as much as possible.

But I can't, because he is that damn good.

I hate to say it, but the guy somehow managed to get it. For one thing, he's got this really unique rhythm and cadence that can either be instantly catchy or somewhat hard to get into at times, and it makes you pay attention - sometimes you have to look hard to find the rhymes. He forces you to listen and think about his music.

Secondly, his lyrical content moves far beyond the ever-more-common hip-hop banality of "Look! Pay attention to me, please! I have money, as illustrated by my lavish jewelry and expensive clothing, and as a result, I have attractive women (also endearingly known as "bitches" and/or "ho's") that do not mind having sex with me in exchange for fancy gifts, image, status and the opportunity to share in wealth they did not earn themselves, and I also enjoy gunplay, yet I do not particularly enjoy other people who lob insults or derision my way, and my distaste for these folks is so significant that I often consider committing acts of violence against them. Oh, and I enjoy marijuana, and I am currently wearing the jersey of my favorite professional sports team, which also happens to denote the metropolitan area in which I was born and raised!"

Thirdly, the guy is incredibly aware of himself, too. He's got no misconceptions about how he got where he is and what people think of him. As evidenced in his song "White America" and in "8 Mile," he's entirely aware of perceptions that he's just another Vanilla Ice flash-in-the-pan white rap gimmick, or another Elvis Presley out to co-opt black music for the purposes of diluting it and turning it into a cash cow, and he's out to prove people wrong.

So he makes the hip-hop "Rocky." The "semi-autobiographical" saga of a broke-ass trailer trash honky in Detroit named Jimmy with a drunk-ass mama and a dead-end string o' jobs, whose only joy in life is hanging around with his dopey friends and slinking around in the world of street-level battle rap - the kinda thing that gave birth to the culture. What makes this a little easier for a honky to do is that the guy running the show is a bloke by the name o' Future (Phifer) who happens to think Jimmy's a genius and desperately wants him to prove it in the battles. Trouble is Jimmy's first attempt at it, under the very intimidating moniker of B. Rabbit, results in a full-on choke, as in not uttering a single word and staring into a crowd that's watching him turn into a chump.

Then he embarks upon what could probably be termed one of the worst weeks of his miserable life. He's just choked and is a laughingstock of his entire world, he's getting threatened at work, he's got issues about which one of his big-talking marketing pals he should be trusting with his iffy hip-hop future, his mom is not only dating an asshole that he went to school with, but she and the little girl whose relationship to Jimmy is never officially explained but is probably her little sister are getting evicted from their trailer, one of his pals is consorting with an unsavory gang of jerks calling themselves The Free World, his ex-girlfriend is lying about being pregnant with his kid, another one of his pals is a colossal moron, and he's just cooking with frustration and rage and hate and surliness and THAT CREATIVE FIRE that gets to explode when he's finally pushed to his limits.

You can pull out the cynic goggles and look at this film in a variety of dismissive ways, if you're so inclined. Por ejemplo:

  • It's the birth of rap - now told in convenient, safe Caucasian form! Much like the birth of Jesus was sanitized and honk-ified by egocentic Europeans, now redneck trailer trash everywhere can personally identify with and bastardize another cultural phenomenon not their own! Be like Elvis!
  • Oh, look! A movie about a young white man entering the black man's world, playing what's predominantly a black man's game and succeeding as no other person ever has! Just like Rocky! Isn't that a comforting idea? White dudes can do whatever a black dude can do, but better! Rest easy in the suburbs, kids! It's all handled.
  • They made a Mariah Carey movie, they made a Britney Spears movie, why WOULDN'T they make a freakin' Eminem movie? Here's a thought - hire ACTORS, not MUSICIANS! Maybe Sam Jackson had a point about not thinking that any schmuck that can string rhymes together should get acting roles. You listening, Ja Rule? Why hasn't DMX sued you yet?

And so on.

The problem, however, is that it's a really good film, and refuses to be dismissed out of hand. There's a very tangible feeling of frustration with one's lot in life, and seeing all the crap that Rabbit deals with every day, day in and day out, spreads the peanut butter of burden on thick enough that you feel confined even in your seat. The fact that Eminem is not a really great actor actually helps somewhat, too, because he's so understated all the time and you're just itching for him to explode at some point, which builds some solid tension to a catharsis when he finally breaks his bad streak and lays the verbal smacketh down on the pricks what are ruinin' his life. It also doesn't hurt that "Lose Yourself" is one of the catchiest, pumpin'est songs around.

As much as one would like to pitch this film into the "Cool As Ice" shitpit, the gritty realism and lack of the bullshit trappings of superstardom in favor of concentrating on what hip-hop is really about, how it came about and why it's now all about make for a worthwhile film, thanks to director Curtis Hanson and interesting performances from the supporting cast. Brittany Murphy has an odd but magnetic character that's just looking for a ticket outta town, and Taryn Manning's bit part as Rabbit's hosebeast fake-pregnancy-havin' ex-girlfriend nails all the trashy Midwest jerk chicks I went to school with perfectly. Not to mention that perfect ridiculous crap where Rabbit's mom is dating some asshole drunk schmuck that's maybe a year older than her son, and has an antagonistic relationship with him. It's all done so well that I was scared at how much of it I recognized from growing up around it.

As for the whole divisive race issue, I just never really got the impression that those snotty little arguments were valid. It's a uniter, not a divider, and I'm all for that when it's promoting friendship among all walks of life and not letting skin color set boundaries between human beings (although I am NOT for it when a hypocritical warmongering business criminal silver-spoon fuckstick steals the presidency on that platform, but I digress). It's not a 'proving the white guy can trump the black guy' sort of vibe, but rather a 'prove that a poor bastard in a shitty situation can do at least one worthwhile thing in his life' vibe, and you don't have to be any particular color to be in that shitseat of existence. If you're in the same leaky boat as the next guy, there's no sense bitching at him for wearing a Packers jersey, you know?

And that's one to grow on.

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