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Stories of the downtrodden making it big or at least finding their dreams have long been fodder for entertaining films. While there is a strict formula these movies follow, it is often a necessary one, with the small bits between the loss and success making a story great. With 8 Mile, it is these small bits and some surprisingly effective performances that keep this often powerful, character-driven plot on top.
In many ways, 1977’s Saturday Night Fever set the tempo for this genre, with a talented but brash upstart cutting his way into a scene he might not initially be welcome in. For 8 Mile, it’s young, blue-collar worker, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Eminem) who moves from Detroit back to his Mom’s (Kim Basinger) trailer just off famed 8 Mile Road and dreams of being a rapper. He thinks about it all the time, jotting notes in all his free time, seeing his music in his head. But when encouraged by his friends to enter a rap battle at the local club called The Shelter, his lack of confidence leaves him scurrying off stage with the rough crowd letting him have it. Though humiliated, as time passes his wounds make him strong and one day when a gay co-worker is verbally insulted in an impromptu rap at the car factory where he works, he steps up and defends his friend, which attracts a girl and in turn some trouble with a gang. On this stretch of road, that means a fight, but not with fists, with words on a rap battle stage. It won’t be the first.
Directed by Curtis Hanson, 8 Mile is committed piece of film, a deeply personal work that treats the subject and the music with respect, never romanticizing but also not over-dramatizing. This is less about the outcome and more about the growth. Eminem was a cloud of controversy back in the late 90s and early 2000s, but his music, as dark and hostile and raw as it often came out, was a phenomenon that had legions of fans on all sides of the social and economic spectrum. When the film was released, it surprised critics and fans alike and for many, had us thinking this was the start of a brand new acting era for the rapper, but it remains his only work of non-fiction (and starring role) to date. 8 Mile is a stirring and passionate story, and like every movie, has one great moment.
Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith forms an early friendship with Wink (Eugene Byrd), who works at a radio station and encourages the young rapper to get on stage, but that friendship begins to weaken when Jimmy finds out that Wink does promo work for a rival rap gang. It strains the relationship and has B-Rabbit thinking betrayal. Jimmy’s go-to emotion is anger. Meanwhile, Jimmy has been growing affectionate and having sex with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a pretty young woman who sees potential in Jimmy but ends up cheating on him with Wink, thereby ending two relationships. Jimmy beats up his former friend and in retaliation, Wink and the other gang ambush him and his pals, leading to a draw where it’s decided it all should be settled on the stage at The Shelter.
The point of the rap battle is to corrosively insult your opponent, who is standing on stage in your face, waiting their turn to give it right back, but B-Rabbit is up against three of them in a row, who are all confident the poor, white bum from the trailer park isn’t going to last the first round. These “battles” are performed in 45-second rounds with a DJ behind them playing a beat and the rapper riffing in improvised, on-the-spot vocal eviscerations. The crowd, like rabid sports team fans, are on their feet, hands in the air, salivating for proverbial blood.
The first one though, falls fast. Jimmy has a slow start but he handily ‘defeats’ him, slinging profane insults and verbal jabs at every aspect of his life and appearance, much to the riotous approval of the turning crowd. His rhythms easily out matches the opposing rapper and Jimmy grows in stature and rank in just a few minutes. But we also get a hint of where Jimmy is going with his attack. More of it is coming. Next up, things get personal.
Round 2 sees a vicious, angry tirade against Jimmy, who is already physically bruised from the fist fight earlier. He is insulted and maligned, with his race now a target. The crowd, pumped by the beat, howls at the performance. But B-Rabbit stands there and takes it. And when it’s his turn, slings it all back with the same intensity, but leaves out race, instead, mocking the rapper for his supposed steroid use and lack of imagination, copying the first opponents rap. Once again, he easily wins the round. Then comes Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie).
It’s important to understand that there is no love lost between these two men. At one point in the story, Papa Doc was ready to kill Jimmy, pointing a gun straight at him before he was stopped. Papa Doc is also the best rapper in the city, the reigning champion at The Shelter and the one all comers must face if they want recognition. The coin toss to determine who raps first puts Papa Doc in charge and he tells Jimmy to take the mic.
Jimmy knows who he is. That much is true. Furthermore, he knows how he is perceived. This makes a big difference in how he raps. He is poor, white, and living in a trailer park. He is trying to make waves in a movement predominantly dominated by black performers. This becomes an integral part of his rhymes, the acknowledgment of his easy-to-see identity and what it causes in the community where chooses to participate. He also recognizes that these characteristics are easy targets for his rapping opponents, and as such, makes a choice in his final battle to look the the lion in the mouth and in effect, rip out its teeth. And so he does.
Whether you’re a fan of rap music or not, the underdog, come-from-behind formula so prominent in film is used to wild success here, with Jimmy launching into an extraordinary, scathing personal attack on himself, realizing the only thing he can do to win is disarm Papa Doc before they get a chance to even try. It’s thrilling to watch and in context of the film, reveals the breakthrough in character and confidence the young man needs, allowing him to see that success is not only about believing in yourself but recognizing who you are and finding your own way in this unforgiving world. 8 Mile is an extraordinary film in its own right, and the rap battle at its core is a riveting, self-reflection. A great movie moment.
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: Scott Silver
Stars: Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Anthony Mackie, Kim Basinger, Eugene Byrd,