November 10, 2002 -- "8-Mile," the searing hiphopudrama starring rap icon Eminem contains a blistering sex scene, more F-words than a Hell's Angels convention, and violence, too. It is also an entertaining, if not very enlightening film.
Eminem recently was raised to the exalted status of Tiger Woods after he was mentioned in Chris Rock's memorable quip about how it must be getting close to the end of the world because the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white. Eminem, sometimes labeled a homophobe, sexist, misogynist and racist, comes across better than that in the film. He comes across as a basically decent guy who is trying to make his mark on the world. His insult-laced rap lyrics are his only real means of self-defense and his only way out of grinding poverty. Eminem plays the part of a white rapper called Jimmy Smith Jr. (AKA Rabbit), who has a gay friend at work, and hangs out with a bunch of black guys, some of whom are part of a unit called Three One Third. Jimmy and his pals, Future (Mekhi Phifer of "O"), big guy Sol (Omar Benson Miller of "Sorority Boys"), activist DJ Iz (De'Angelo Wilson) and the other white guy, Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones) are all hoping to make it big someday in the world of rap and hip hop music.
Jimmy is down on his luck as the film opens. He just broke up with his girlfriend, he doesn't have a car and he has had to move back into his mother's mobile home near 8 Mile Road, the dividing line between black and white Detroit. Jimmy's mother, Stephanie Smith (Kim Basinger of "Bless the Child") has a young daughter, Lily, at home, as well as an abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon of "High Crimes") who is about the same age as Jimmy. Stephanie is an alcoholic who has no visible means of support. Jimmy also wimps out at a big freestyle rap battle at a club called The Shelter and becomes the laughingstock of the local rap community. Rap battles are at the heart of the movie. Imagine Don Rickles or some other insult comedian personally insulting you in rhyme to pounding music. That's what it is like being in a rap battle. Contestants use their knowledge of their opponent to make the most cutting remarks possible. It is an angry, intimidating sport.
Jimmy needs to find a way to focus his anger into his craft and to overcome his stage fright to succeed. He also needs to find an inner strength and confidence that he seems to lack. Part of this fear comes from being the only white practitioner of rap in an area mostly populated by blacks. This vulnerability is what makes Jimmy's character so appealing. When he strikes back at his enemies with his cutting rap lyrics we see that this is the only way Jimmy has of defending himself against a very tough world. This talent is also his ticket out. Maybe Eminem's lyrics are homophobic, sexist, misogynist and racist, but in the context of this vicious musical battleground and his tortured existence, the lyrics can be seen as defensive as well as offensive. This kind of verbal street fighting is not for the meek.
The sex scene between Jimmy and Alex (Brittany Murphy of "Riding in Cars With Boys") is hot enough to melt the gum under the seats of any theater. Murphy's fake orgasm is about as sizzling as anything I've seen in any sex scene. There was so much panting I'm surprised the camera lens didn't fog up. There are also several other sex scenes in the movie, most of them quite brief, and there is some partial nudity. There is also some violence, mostly fights and beatings. There is little gunplay. The language is laced with many profanities, as one would expect, give the subject matter. This movie is so violent that the one scene in which someone is shot is actually a comic scene. There is also drug use and a scene in which our heroes commit arson for a good cause. This is not what you would call a family movie, but it is inspirational in a limited way. It is sort of like a sports movie, with the big rap battle substituting for the big game.
The acting is generally good throughout the film, although Kim Basinger is miscast as Jimmy's mother. She is way too glamorous to be believable as poor white trash. Her southern accent is intermittent. There are some interesting characters in the film, such as De'Angelo Wilson's activist character, who serves as the social conscience for the group of friends. Eugene Byrd of "Sleepers" plays Wink, a sort of music hustler who always seems to be lurking on the fringes of every scene. Mekhi Phifer's character, Future, is also a hustler, but he is also an optimist and a good friend to Jimmy. The very cute Chloe Greenfield is memorable as Jimmy's little sister, who lives in a very tough environment. Evan Jones' character, Chedder Bob, is intriguing mainly because he really doesn't fit in with the rest of the crowd. He's like a fifth wheel. The characters are interesting enough and the story is strong enough, that I wanted to see what happened to these characters after the film ended. That is a sign of a good movie.
The strongest part of the film is the music. That is where the film really gets its energy. The rap battle scenes are intense. The lyrics in these battles are also enunciated well enough that you can understand what is being said. You might think this movie is for Eminem fans only. Mercifully, there is little undecipherable slang. You would think this film is for Eminem fans only. Indeed, the auditorium where I saw the film was filled with moviegoers under the age of 21. But the story and the music appealed to me as a 55-year-old white guy who had never heard more than a snippet of Eminem's music. I do like rap and hip hop music as well as soul and blues, however. Maybe that makes a difference.
The end of the film doesn't resolve all the issues raised by the film. It is more like a slice of life. The story focuses on just a few events in a short period of time without cluttering the movie with flashbacks and history. Rather than being a biography about Eminem, it is more of a snapshot of a few people in a particular time and place. It is a very effective snapshot, giving the audience a feel for the social and musical dynamics of the situation in which these characters exist. This film rates a B.
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