Eminem, aka Slim Shady, aka Marshall Mathers – a homophobic, misogynistic, gun-toting, mother-hating angry rapper, who is an expert at stirring up the middle-class hordes and providing a disruptive influence over today’s youth. He’s also a versatile linguist, an alliterator, enunciator, a master of rhyme and, well, not a bad actor, as it happens. That may be because in Curtis ‘L.A Confidential’ Hanson’s 8 Mile he plays a genius rapper from the wrong side of the tracks, attempting to capitalise on his talents in the face of racial prejudice, abject poverty and family problems. Film debuts don’t get much more autobiographical than this.
Rabbit (Eminem) is preparing himself for a rap ‘battle’ at The Shelter, a local Detroit nightclub, in which he and an adversary will attempt to diss one another and win over the crowd. He rehearses in the can, perfecting the all-important hand movements and brooding scowl needed for the performance – and promptly throws up. We soon learn that these lyrical sparring matches provide his only escape from an existence that otherwise consists of living with his trailer trash mom (Kim Basinger), working in a factory pressing car bumpers and avoiding his bunny-boiler girlfriend. Unfortunately, nerves get the better of him when it’s his turn to counterattack, he freezes and flees the club humiliated. The remainder of the film sees him and his loyal homies dealing with inter-gang rivalry, living in a crumbling urban jungle and attempting to use music as a way of escaping poverty. And of course, there’s the small matter of gaining revenge and making amends for Rabbit’s balked performance at the Shelter – a sort of rapping Rocky.
8 Mile isn’t a star vehicle designed to exploit a loyal fan-base, though – unlike Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice (1991) or – ahem – the ‘actors’ known as the Spice Girls in Spice World (1997). Eminem, frankly, doesn’t need the exposure. Still, Hanson seems to have based the film around Eminem’s lyrical talents – the plot is merely a street-styled, hip-hop remix of an over-familiar format, and the movie’s high points come during the rapper’s amazingly witty and passionate verbal tirades. Also, Eminem’s modus operandi is that he is a white rapper in a predominantly black musical genre, whose lyrics portray a depressed background. Audiences must have walked through the cinema doors expecting to see ‘The Slim Shady Story’, even if the film claims to be a work of fiction.
Musicians rarely make good actors. For every good performance, such as Meat Loaf in Fight Club (1999) or Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000), there’s a Damon Albarn in Face (1997) or Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985). Eminem falls somewhere in the middle; he excels in the musical scenes, but elsewhere in the film the icy stare he’s clearly been encouraged to adopt occassionally crosses the fine line between attitude and inertia.
In the end, (cite)8 Mile(/cite} avoids the rags-to-riches clichés by leaving Rabbit teetering on the edge of success. It is an understated conclusion that avoids ending with a bang and instead simply allows the rapper to find his voice – the explosion coming from the expression of Rabbit’s inner fury rather than some life-changing event. You’ve only got to hope that this isn’t paving the way for a sequel (9 Mile?) where little Rabbit makes it big. Success might finally crack a smile on his stony face – but then again, that might prove a bit too testing for Eminem’s acting skills.