The once-promising city of Detroit is separated from the suburbs by a bleak boundary, a border to the city limits known as 8 Mile Road. Where life formerly thrived and prosperity prevailed in the past, the city has little left to offer. Inside the line is pain: no chance, no money, no hope; across that line, that man-made border, is destiny: a record, a future, a voice. When all you desire is something else, but pride, the past and a need for respect hold you back, it is up to you to stand up and be heard. “8 Mile” deals with that life marked by a disparity between what it is and what it should be.
Director Curtis Hanson unfolds the emotional struggle of one man trying to find his own way in a grittily unflinching style. He presents Detroit through desolate images and a story that rings true to the life it portrays. Provocative, important and intense, he takes a sensitive topic, adds a controversial rapper and stresses a message that is as pertinent to young people everywhere as it is to the inner-city dwellers it models.
Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., rap-named “Bunny Rabbit,” a struggling white rapper in the black-dominated world of underground hip-hop in 1995 Detroit. In a powerful opening scene, Rabbit’s friend Future (Mekhi Phifer, “Clockers”) beckons him to the stage to battle and be heard. On this stage, battles are done with words and rhymes but have emotional blows that liken it to a fierce boxing match. Overwhelmed and nervous, he chokes on his words and is booed off the stage. Everything is wrong in his life. Fired from his job, separated from his girlfriend and without a car, he is forced back across 8 Mile into the 810 area code to live with his broke mother (Kim Basinger). She lives in a trailer park with his sister (talented young Chloe Greenfield) and a boyfriend that graduated high school with Jimmy.
All Jimmy has to rely on are his friends, the Three-One-Third – appropriately named for the Detroit area code. Future wants to bring him back to battle, hoping that Jimmy will be discovered and gather a following; the self-righteous Wink (Eugene Byrd, “Sleepers”) wants to give him a way out by producing a demo tape for him. With Jimmy’s situation becoming ever bleaker, he has to do more on his own. Somewhere in the confusion of trying to be heard, working at the stamping plant to make money and fighting with the rap-group the Free World, the beautiful, model-dreaming Alex (Brittany Murphy, “Don’t Say a Word”) puts dreams of a better world into his head. Tension constantly builds as Jimmy fights for control and opportunity.
Pleasantly surprising in his demeanor, Eminem proves that he has skill beyond the recording studio. His performance is powerful and convincing with an emotional range that even the most experienced actors would have trouble reaching. In every scene, Eminem carries the entire weight of the film on his shoulders. The controversial raps and bad press become lost as he truly personifies the character. As the movie progresses, Eminem disappears and Jimmy Smith Jr. takes center stage. Even where it starts to resemble a biopic of Eminem himself, he becomes immersed in the role’s complexity that translates into an enthralling screen presence and riveting debut. Certainly praiseworthy, this portrayal should change naysayers’ opinions of the cultural phenom.
Supporting cast members also provide a wonderful array of characters and performances. Murphy, Basinger and Phifer bring a touch of class to the set. Their experience and expertise adds validity to the film, but their embodiment of characters has the raw nature of reality. Casting known rappers in bit parts also adds a depth to the story as they raise the battles to a level of extreme intensity and natural flow. The best move that Hanson makes in casting is his decision to use unknowns and native Detroiters to fill bit parts and be extras. These people are the story; they have the natural ability to create the aura because they live it.
An excellent compilation of songs accompanies a realistic, grainy film stock and the concentrated camerawork. Eminem’s amazing amount of input, including the lyrics for every battle, is astounding when considering his lack of film training. The photography brings the audience in for a close exhibition of emotions necessary to understand the characters’ intricacies. With a story that resembles the original “Rocky,” Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto transforms Rabbit’s trials on the microphone into an exchange of words that cut like right-hooks and knockout punches. Unlike other movies based in Detroit, Hanson shoots the neighborhoods and not the sights. He uses the city as more than a setting; it becomes a dominating, oppressive force. Where other films show the prominent venues, he shies away from known features to show the harshness that encompasses the majority of the area.
Hanson has added to his awesome list of credentials (highlighted by “Wonder Boys” and “L.A. Confidential”) with a wonderful piece of drama and truth. Everything comes together in powerful fashion and leaves a lingering sense of satisfaction. “8 Mile”, entirely shot in Detroit, is one film in which the people and city it projects should take pride.