Saturday, 2 June 2012

8 Mile (2002)

Dir. Curtis Hanson
Starring: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy

8 Mile is the Eminem film: a film starring Eminem, about a character much like Eminem, growing up in the neighbourhood Eminem grew up in. That neighbourhood is the 8 Mile Road district of north Detroit. 

Or maybe the character isn’t Eminem. He is Marshall Mathers. Eminem may get the credit on the cast list, but Eminem is the confident peroxide-blonde rap megastar. Jimmy ‘Rabbit’ Smith is unsure, has dark hair, and is pretty much at the bottom of the socio-economic pile. We first see him after he has split from his girlfriend. He has no home and no car; all he owns he carries with him in a bin-bag. He works in a car-parts factory. He goes up on stage at the Shelter club to engage in a rap battle but he chokes. Unable to get any words out he is booed off stage and all the way back to the trailer park where his mother (an impressively drab Kim Basinger) lives. 

He dreams of getting out, making it big, winning that record contract. His friend Wink (Eugene Byrd) is a confident hustler and claims that he can fix Jimmy up with someone who will fund his demo. Future (Mekhi Phifer) and his other friends in the 3 1 3rds instead say that he should come back to the rap battle, claim the crown, and be spotted. They talk about what they will do when they make it big; they don’t ever seem to do anything to guarantee it will happen. Future disparages Wink and claims the man is all mouth. Yet his vision does not seem to stretch further than the rap battles and being honest with God. 

Alex (Brittany Murphy) too is looking for her big break. A wannabe model she is looking to fund her portfolio and then leave Detroit for New York City. She and Jimmy have an instant attraction. She inspires him to greater performances and seems to be the only one who is confident that he will hit the big time. They start a relationship (contravening over a dozen health and safety regulations when they fuck in the factory). But he realises that if he is to make it he has to take responsibility for himself, rather than relying on others. He lowers his sights, taking on more shifts at the factory. Finally he goes back to the rap battle, to take on the rival ‘Free World’ crew. This time he doesn’t choke. He takes them on one by one, and one by one he beats them. It is almost like a classic kung fu movie, in that his strength comes from his weakness. He has to acknowledge who he is and where he comes from. He wins in the final round because he uses his background – that he is poor white trash, living in a trailer park with his mom, cannot keep a girl, and just had seven kinds of crap kicked out of him – in his favour before Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) can use it against him. He finds a sort of peace with himself. And then, champion, what does he do? He goes back to the factory to complete his shift. He gets the adulation of the crowd, he gets the respect of his peers, but he is still Jimmy ‘Rabbit’ Smith, working in a dead-end job, living in his mom’s trailer, and driving a clapped-out old banger of a car. Nothing has changed. At that moment he is king of the hill – much as Papa Doc was the week before. And the next week someone else will come along to challenge him. It doesn’t really matter. 

This is the twist. This is not Coal Miner’s Daughter. He suffers an upset, and he comes back from it, but there is no record deal at the end of it, no recording contract or tour bus. I didn’t expect that. I expected him to be whisked away from this life. And he isn’t. This is not a star biopic; it’s a kitchen sink drama. It’s real. Life is doled out in little victories, the kind that make life bearable but not noticeably better. It’s a bleak film, set in bleak surroundings. 

Director Curtis Hanson reflects these surroundings in the cinematography. Scenes are either shot after dark or under fluorescent strip-lighting. The grime and dirt and urban decay of Detroit is clear, whether we are in a club, a factory, a trailer, a car park, or just driving down the road past vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The film crew did deliberately find the grungiest places they could, and then grunged them up even further. The end result is that Detroit looks about as ideal a holiday destination as downtown Mogadishu. 

But can Eminem act? Yes. He can. This probably shouldn’t have been such a shock to people. His ‘Eminem’ and 'Slim Shady' personas are pretty much characters that he himself has created anyway. Rabbit is just another character. But Eminem manages to invest him with the insecurity and vulnerability that he could never express in a rap video. He still manages to unleash his trademark flow in several of the battles though. His USP has always been not just that he is a white rapper, but that he has a distinctive voice. His phraseology and cheeky use of language is unmistakable (for instance, in the track Lose Yourself, which won the Academy Award for best song, he starts off with the classic lines “His palms are sweaty / Knees weak, arms are heavy / There’s vomit on his sweater already: / Mom’s spaghetti”). In real life he, like Jimmy, started out in rap battles, where this inventiveness was nurtured. It is no wonder that he performs so well here when he finally unleashes his talent. But the lyrics have always only been half of his appeal; he is also famed for his use of insanely catchy hooks. Here he is without them. But he can still bring in that wordplay, and put enough truth into his depiction of Rabbit, to make the film more than watchable. 

"Hands, touching hands, reaching out,
touching me, touching yoooouuuu - EVERYBODY!"

What have I learnt about Michigan?
There are many movies I have watched this year that have made me add another location to the list of places I want to go. 8 Mile is not one of them. Detroit looks terrible. The roads are lined with concrete bunkers, vacant lots and abandoned family homes – the families got out a long time ago. Beefs are common between different gangs, and guns are carried. The police are stretched thin. Everyone is looking for a way to get the hell out of town. 

Yet there is pride in their city. Everyone wants to say that they are real 313 (313 being the Detroit area code). Conversely, no one wants to be an 810 (the area code of the estates beyond 8 Mile Road). 

It is interesting to see that, even after Detroit’s ‘Motor City’ heyday and long after the era of Henry Ford himself, the city still has an automotive industry of sorts, as shown by Jimmy’s choice of job. Detroit is also shown to be a predominantly black city. Jimmy, his sister and mother, her boyfriend Greg (Michael Shannon, of Revolutionary Road, Pearl Harbor and Cecil B. Demented), Alex and Janine, Cheddar Bob, a couple of people in the crowd at The Shelter: these are the only white faces we see. Everyone else is black. This is an impression backed up by a quick look at Wikipedia, which states that 82.7% of Detroit’s population is African-American and only 10.6% white. 

Can we go there?
As the end credits state: “This film was made in the 313”. And a lot of real life locations in Detroit were used; often locations that featured in Eminem’s own life. Notably when his new car won’t start he is seen walking from a real trailer park a block away from 8 Mile Road (the Continental Mobile Village) to a bus stop on 8 Mile itself (though the route seen through the bus windows is actually near Chene and East Jefferson). East Jefferson and Mack is where the 3 1 3rds shoot the paintball rifle out of the car window. 

Eminem started performing at The Shelter. This is located in the basement of St. Andrews Hall at 431 E. Congress (near Greektown). The real club wasn’t cruddy enough however, and so a set was constructed for the exterior at 240 Cheyne; the interior rap battles were shot in an empty warehouse on Clifford Street. The long-closed (and now demolished) Chin Tiki Restaurant on Cass Avenue was also shown. The eye-catching parking area outside is a real parking lot, set in the ruins of the Michigan Theater.

The auto-part factory where Jimmy works was New Center Stamping on E Milwaukee. WJLB radio station is based in the Penobscot Building, and the exterior and lobby there was shown in the film. The interior studios were shot at the Book-Cadillac Building. The house the guys burn down was located at 122 Beresford in Highland Park. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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