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Movie offers up brand-new image for rapper
Is Eminem transformed?

Review by Stuart Easterling | November 22, 2002 | Page 9

MUSIC: 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger and Brittany Murphy.

EMINEM THE rapper is now a movie star. He is well known and widely despised for lyrics that routinely joke about rape and violence against women and denigrate gay people. In response to criticism, he has declared, "I just say whatever I want to whoever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want, however I want."

But the new movie 8 Mile, which stars Eminem and is loosely based on his life, promotes a quite a different image. Eminem plays B. Rabbit, a young white kid from a trailer park who works at a stamping plant and dreams of being a famous rapper. He is a gifted lyricist, but has to prove himself in the competitive world of street hip-hop in Detroit's "313" area code.

The best MCs are judged in dramatic head-to-head "battles" between artists, where they attempt to creatively belittle one another and are rated (often cruelly) by the crowd. The question is: Can Rabbit make it in this tough world?

8 Mile may sound like an extended promo for Eminem. The music and film industries certainly hope it will be, because he is a cash cow for them. And so the media is now falling all over itself trying to hype up Eminem and make him more palatable to a "mainstream audience."

However, as a movie, 8 Mile ends up cutting against the materialism and homophobia in a lot of today's rap music. It touches on class, race relations and fighting to achieve your dreams despite poverty. The audience ends up rallying behind Rabbit's multiracial, working-class gang of troublemakers, as they hope to make it big in the hip-hop world, or at least just have a good time.

Rabbit is an aspiring white artist in a historically Black medium, and competing rappers at the battles do not fail to remind him of this. The results are often hilarious. Rabbit is able to succeed through his talent and by appealing to his audience on a class basis.

The film also painfully portrays the impact that poverty can have on families. Rabbit's mother stays home all day and drinks too much, and they end up having bitter fights about her unwillingness to find work to support her daughter and her living with a man without much of a future.

Rabbit reacts in anger, as many in his situation do. Unfortunately, the film never raises the deeper questions about how poor women end up in the personal and emotional circumstances that Rabbit's mother is in. Women don't make much of a showing in this movie as strong characters, although talented female lyricists do get some brief screen time.

In general, 8 Mile doesn't want to take its politics too seriously. The one "political" character in Rabbit's posse is little more than a parody of the "conscious Black man," and is frequently derided by his friends. However, Rabbit does step forward and rap to defend a gay coworker. Perhaps it's to spruce up Eminem's homophobic image, but it's still good to see in a movie.

Eminem himself has sold more records than any other hip-hop artist. This is often explained by his "crossover appeal"--that is, he's white. Eminem himself acknowledges this on his new album: "Let's do the math--if I were Black, I would have sold half," he says in the song "White America."

Yet while he may be derided by some as "the Elvis of hip-hop," Eminem nonetheless brings strong acting and rhyming to 8 Mile. But if you think the populist tone of his new hit "Lose Yourself," along with the themes in 8 Mile, are evidence that Eminem has changed his ways, don't hold your breath. His next gig is an appearance on Girls Gone Wild, a video series where stars videotape college women exposing themselves.

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