This is your movie, about your hometown, starring your pop icon.
The makers of 8 Mile are showing a preview of the film as a courtesy to the scores of Detroit-area residents who played extras and various bit roles. Excitement is not an accurate enough term to describe the energy at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ theater on this chilly evening. In a matter of minutes, some of these folks will see their faces flash across the screen in a big-budget, real-life Hollywood movie. If not, they’ll at least see the faces of friends and associates from the local hip-hop scene.
These are not your usual DIA suspects. These are hip-hop “heads” in all their thug regalia. They have not allowed the place to maintain its usual aura. Tonight, this venue has been transformed into the Adams, the old Grand Circus Park theater where people went to party and talk shit at whatever showed up on the movie screen.
The extras in 8 Mile, referred to as “The Untitled Detroit Project” during production, were carefully selected to represent the cultural makeup of Eminem’s city. Hence, the vast majority of this audience is black, but there are all kinds of people in the house — white, Asian, East Indian.
When the lights dim and the movie title appears, the crowd howls as if the star of the film himself has just walked onto the stage. The opening scene portrays Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Eminem) dancing in front of a mirror à la Muhammad Ali, preparing for a battle. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II” blasts through his headset. The mood is dark, and Em’s signature blue-eyed gaze sets the tone for what promises to be a dark, entertaining, semiautobiographical walk through the life of one rapper fighting for respect in a city where he is born an outcast.
After the movie, I drive home, literally running two numbers through my head. One is the number 8. As in 8 Mile. As in 8 Mile Road, a street that will soon be recognized throughout the world as the contentious boundary between Detroit and its outlying suburbs.
The other number is 4, as in four critical areas that will make this movie, and could cripple Detroit’s image … further.
Thought No. 1:
“A” rapper, “B” actor
Samuel L. Jackson is hip-hop’s most hated actor of the moment, thanks to his statement that rappers should not make movies before they prove their ability as thespians. Eminem, however, should get an “A” for his effort in 8 Mile. Considering that his first movie is a starring role, Em holds his own next to co-star Kim Basinger, who portrays his mother.
While Em’s nerves seem to show a little in some scenes — the factory sex scene and a shouting match with Basinger — he is rather convincing as Rabbit. Although he’s basically playing himself, there is still pressure once the camera turns on you. Mariah Carey, for instance, can barely play herself in real life, much less in Glitter. Eminem comes across as composed and comfortable as one could expect of a first-timer.
Thought No. 2:
So this is Detroit, huh?
Visually, 8 Mile makes Detroit look like prison ass. If it’s semiautobiographical, and Em grew up poor in a trailer park, the movie understandably has to reflect that. But damn, dog!
Imagine being the person who’s not from Detroit, but goes to see this movie. If you’ve never visited and 8 Mile is your first impression of the city, you’ll never want to. Mack and Bewick looks like Sodom and Gomorrah, for God’s sake.
But what’s that got to do with the quality of the flick, eh?
Aside from the visual tour through hell, subtle undertones in the script reveal the racial stigma that exists on both sides of 8 Mile Road. Eminem, hip-hop’s Rocky Balboa, was forced to contend with this stigma, as race-conscious Detroiters were among the last to acknowledge his talent. Race underscores his battle for respect in the movie, just as much as his own reticence does.
Thought No. 3:
No glitter here
In a possible contradiction of the sickening Detroit visuals, the smartest creative move in 8 Mile’s cinematography is its dark edge. It matches Eminem’s and gives the movie a believability that escapes other recording artists’ first films (think Ja Rule in The Fast and the Furious or Carey’s Glitter).
Another stroke of genius was casting Detroit rappers in support roles. Njeri Earth, Miz Korona, Strike (who is impressive as a member of Em’s nemesis crew, the Free World) of the Mountain Climbers and others bring the swagger, language and ferocity of Detroit hip hop without asking permission. Frankly, many of these individuals were not acting. They were just ripping rhyme ciphers — circles of MCs who take turns freestyling or spitting their best written material — which is what they do best. It’s a power move in Detroit’s struggle to legitimize itself as a hip-hop hotbed.
Thought No. 4:
Not West or East, but right in the middle
You’ll hear the musical influences throughout the movie: 2Pac’s “No More Tears,” Biggie’s “Unbelievable,” Naughty By Nature’s “Feel Me Flow.” Hip hop’s cross-country influence on Detroit is reflected in the film. The only thing missing is some local flavor. An Awesome Dre or Kaos & Mystro record would’ve sent the authenticity of the film to the stratosphere.
8 Mile offers a few glimpses into Em’s personal life. His real-life disdain for his mother takes a happier turn in 8 Mile’s happier ending. Also, the relationship with his girlfriend, whom he dumps at the beginning of the film, becomes a question mark toward the end as Em sits in his car watching her through her apartment window, seemingly wondering what will become of them.
8 Mile wins because it doesn’t try to impress you with mega-stars and made-up stories. Instead, it tells a simple story of trial, error and triumph. Between his career and a movie worth the price of admission, Eminem has crossed 8 Mile Road, finding open arms and respect on both sides.
Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].