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111 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, November 8, 2002
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Taryn Manning, Eugene Byrd
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 40%
LETTERBOX: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
It goes without saying that a good sound system is essential to get the proper power of this movie, in which music is emotion. But you'll also want to get it letterboxed because the exquisite cinematography is important to the film's impact as well.
VIDEO RELEASE: 03.18.2003
Eminem keeps it real as a Detroit battle-rapper in authentic, moody, heavy-duty hip-hop film '8 Mile'
OK, yes -- Eminem can act. In fact, he can carry a movie. The charismatically angry white hip-hop star is in every scene of "8 Mile" -- a film inspired in part by his own days as a hungry young rapper, scrapping his way through smack-down rhyme battles in mid-1990s Detroit. And while some may say he's not doing much more than playing himself, Eminem shows enough resourceful nuance and emotional intuition that he cannot be summarily dismissed.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's directed by Curtis Hanson, who has proven his acumen and passion for producing movies as inspired and extraordinary as "L.A. Confidential" and the off-kilter, tragically overlooked intellectual comedy "Wonder Boys."
The story here is not a rise-to-glory cliché with a lucrative recording contract waiting for the hero at the closing credits. It's a realistic, struggling-class drama about a tough kid from the white side of the Motor City ghetto who wants to prove himself as a rapper and "get out of the D."
Jimmy "B. Rabbit" Smith, Jr. works in a steel stamping shop where body panels are made for cars. He lives in a trailer park with his bipolar, hard-drinking mom (Kim Basinger in a rugged, resilient performance) and spends his free time with his big-talking buddies who are always sure they'll be "getting a big deal soon" from some phantom record company that will discover them.
What they do that deserves discovering is a big question mark, but Rabbit has an emerging talent for the rhymes and they believe in him, especially Future (Mekhi Phifer), a friend with his head screwed on straight who hosts rap battles at an underground club called "The Shelter."
The movie is bookended by two of these battles, in which contestants have 45 seconds to slur each other in ad-libbed hardcore rhymes set to a DJ-spun hip-hop backdrop while the audience cheers them on. The winner is decided by applause, and in the movie's first scene, Rabbit is booed off the stage when he flat-out chokes after being smacked down by a gangbanging street rapper called Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie).
"They don't laugh 'cause you're white/They laugh 'cause your white with a mic," Papa Doc improvs poetically. "This is hip-hop. You don't belong/You're a tourist."
Over the course of the next week, Rabbit's trust in himself waxes and wanes as he climbs the steepest part of a big hump in his life. If he can get over it, he'll probably be OK. But it's pretty clear that nothing ever comes easily to anyone living near 8 Mile Road, the dividing line between poor black and white neighborhoods in a bad part of Detroit that gives the film its title.
Screenwriter Scott Silver ("johns," "The Mod Squad") covers some obvious territory -- gang troubles, mom's abusive boyfriend, Rabbit's tender devotion to his baby sister, an encouraging love interest (sexy, trashy Brittany Murphy) with a hidden agenda -- but always with fresh and unexpected twists on formula. "8 Mile" is anything but a soundtrack-driven popcorn flick for a poseur musician to cash in on his popularity.
Hanson's direction is moody and exquisite, with cinematography that creates a sooty, gray ambiance and a polished narrative maturity that complements the music but never goes anywhere near MTV style. He also garners great performances across the board, especially from Basinger (whose work here is as good as in "L.A. Confidential"), Murphy (who sells even her cheesiest "I believe in you" lines with admirable credibility) and Phifer ("Paid in Full"), who lends depth and passion to his role as Rabbit's most faithful friend.
Throughout the film, Eminem proves his mettle right along with Rabbit, as the character's confidence in his skills on the mic builds palpably through impromptu rap battles that arise in club parking lots and even outside the roach-coach lunch truck at the steel plant. You can feel it when Rabbit is on his game, and you can tell how good it feels for him to have an inspired rap roll off his tongue.
But you can tell he's struggling right up until he really brings it on in a rematch with Papa Doc at The Shelter in the film's finale -- which also steers around the edges of hip-hop and underdog movie clichés.
The way this movie is made, the way this story is told, this is what is meant by the phrase "keepin' it real."