Rated R - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 11/8/02

In a relatively short amount of time, rap star Eminem has established himself as a talented performer and lyricist, an outrageously conceited primadonna, an outspoken and unapologetic homophobe, and a promising actor. Most people who know who he is seem to have a strong opinion of him one way or the other, and this translates into perhaps his most notable talent: the ability to create controversy. His first feature film vehicle, 8 Mile, perpetuates this tendency, showcasing all his talents and his flaws, within the gritty urban world of 1990s Detroit. Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), it is loosely based on Eminem’s own early experiences as a fledgling white artist in the African-American-dominated industry. While the film is gritty and realistic, and its star shows he is very much up to the challenge (at least of portraying himself), I can’t help but feel it makes a mountain out of a mole hill. Like sports movies, it portrays its subject matter as a much more significant activity than it really is. I’m sure for Eminem rapping is the most important thing in the world, but this film, written by Scott Silver, seems to be making it into some kind of life-and-death struggle, as if its lead character is going to get shot dead if he doesn’t figure out how to properly bust a rhyme.

Eminem (whose real name is Marshall Mathers) plays “Rabbit” (whose real name is Jimmy Smith Jr.), a talented young rapper with a modest reputation at the local club, who is first seen losing a rapping battle before a crowd of jeering black audience members. Added to this humiliation is the shame that he is forced to live with his trailer-trash mother (Kim Basinger) and her predictably abusive redneck boyfriend (Michael Shannon). Although he works part-time at an auto plant, he’s hardly able to make enough cash to make ends meet, and he dreams of escaping his poverty-stricken home by making it big in the music business. Among his friends are Future (Mekhi Phifer), who hosts the club’s rap tournaments, and Wink (Eugene Byrd), who claims to have a connection to the recording industry. But Wink is also connected with the members of the Free World gang, the rivals to Rabbit’s own posse, and the tensions between his friends and enemies often escalate to the threat of bloodshed. Meanwhile, he meets an attractive if slutty girl named Alex (Brittany Murphy), whose presence in the movie stems from a pressing need for the lead character to have a sex partner.

There is no doubt that the acting in this movie is very good and that Eminem and company are very serious about their subject. Director Hanson skillfully creates the oppressive nature of urban poverty with the dirt, grit, and darkness that remains prevalent throughout (almost every scene takes place at night). But as with almost every appearance I’ve seen from Eminem, including sound bites, TV appearances, and videos, he seems to take himself too seriously, which is off-putting when he’s playing a character you’re supposed to like—I don’t care how good a rapper he is. (I’ll admit this seems to be an industry-wide trait in rap artists.) Kim Basinger, who has truly stunk up the last several movies I’ve seen her in, at least manages to come off reasonably believable in her small part, and Murphy is engaging even as she is unnecessary. The supporting cast is adequate, and the music (most of which is by Eminem) is a testament to why rap music took hold in the first place: gutsy, tough, and full of the attitude that gives it meaning. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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