While I watched Eminem’s 8 Mile, the film that replayed itself in parallel wasn’t an Elvis film or Purple Rain, which I’d been told to watch out for, but Body and Soul, Robert Rossen’s 1948 boxing movie in which John Garfield struggles to survive a world of fixed fights. It’s not the plot that struck me as similar-the bouts in 8 Mile are fixed only by the script–it’s the way Eminem looks and acts.
Most of Eminem’s acting-that is, all the numerous emotional contradictions his character discovers in himself–comes out of his Pinocchio eyes and his small lithe body. In an early, defining scene, he takes a lonely late night city bus ride. He sprawls his small lean body in its baggy sweats across the back seat, and stares out at the barren streets of metropolitan Detroit with an intensity that suggests determination not to beat the bleakness but simply to fight it, without really caring who wins.
Director Curtis Hansen places Eminem in a world so cold and dirty you can practically smell its squalor. The Detroit streets seem as devoid of people as they are full of derelict buildings. Ninety percent of the people we see are black, which must be a first for a film with a white star. The exceptions are Eminem’s (Rabbit’s) girlfriends, who are both white-of course, if they had been black, that would have had to be the subject of the film.
The true subject here is cultural miscegenation, a more important first. Elvis made 40 films without ever getting to race matters; Purple Rain took the position that Prince transcended race (both true and impossible). 8 Mile takes race as an inescapable social and musical constant.
The film music adds up to very little (the soundtrack sounds way better), largely because the MC battle that’s the film’s crucible gives each competitor only 45 seconds to perform. The best musical moment comes when Eminem and his best friend, Future (Mekhi Phifer), who is black, are outside working on Eminem’s junker. In his mother’s trailer, her deadbeat boyfriend plays Lynyrd Skynyrd. In their bemusement at this cracker clich?, they begin freestyling to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama” an hilarious commentary on how and why Eminem’s impoverished trailer trash life sucks. Even more than the final scene when Eminem wins over a black club by ‘fessing up to his honky roots, the scene drives home that the only thing that might trump race solidarity is class solidarity.
Eminem says the movie’s message is that “no matter whether you come from the North side or the South side [of 8 Mile Road], you can break outta that,” if “your mentality is right and your drive is right.” But he’s wrong. The film actually shows that in a world where everyone is trapped, including prep school kids, the only way out involves using your individual drive and vision to tell the painful truth-it’s not identity of any kind that can’t be faked but *emotional* authenticity.
So Eminem’s victory comes not when he moons his white ass at a lesser opponent but when he tells the whole truth about his trailer trash background. The decisive factor involves championing that experience as more authentic than his black opponent’s roots in prep school.
So at the end of the film when Eminem says he needs to work by himself for a while, he walks off not into a sunset but back to the bus stop, back to his factory job, which means, to caring for his family, to accepting responsibility, to struggling as hard he knows how to live in a more decent world. Is that what an artist would or should do?
(what’s playing in my office)
1. No Stranger to Shame, Uncle Kracker (Lava)-A devastating “Drift Away” duet with Dobie Gray, a sweet, nasty heart “Letter to My Daughter.” Wet Willie does hip-hop, in a sense. Between Eminem, Kid Rock, and this guy, have the shores of Lake Huron become a new Redneck Riviera?
2. Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers: The Complete Specialty Recordings (Fantasy, 3 disc box)-The greatest music Cooke ever made.
3. Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones (ABKCO)
4. God and Me, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith (Collectables)-The redoubtable Williams’s best album plus 12 additional tracks.
5. None But the Righteous: The Masters of Sacred Steel (RopeADope)-As smooth as shaving with a new blade and with similarly cleansing results. That the music world only recently opened itself to this remarkable and venerable gospel offshoot reflects a silly intellectual phobia against religious culture. Now the great Calvin Cooke and the (inexplicably absent) Robert Randolph have Warners-distributed albums in the works
6. The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Charlie Christian (Columbia Legacy)-So great that a construction crew that only listens to country and metal heard it through a wall and asked what the great sounds were.
7. “Sad & Dreamy (The Big 1-0),” Alejandro Escovedo from The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (Bloodshot)-When Escovedo and Michael Fracasso did a songwriting workshop with Austin gradeschoolers a couple years ago, one kid informed them that since he was about to hit “the big 1-0,” “candy doesn’t taste as good anymore.” That rough rhyme and a variety of similar thoughts became this song. Its poignancy (which also comes across in Fracasso’s live version) spells out childhood facts of life no other song I know gets to. Charming, beautiful, smart, true.
8. Nothing to Fear, A Rough Mix by Steinski (bootleg)
9. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)
10. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared)
11. Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues, Chris Thomas King (21st Century Blues)
12. The Lost Tapes, Nas (Columbia)
13. Revolverution, Public Enemy (Koch)
14. The Naked Ride Home, Jackson Browne (Elektra)
15. When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, Cedell Davis (Fast Horse Recordings)
16. 8 Mile, Eminem (Shady/Interscope)
17. “The Talking Sounds Just Like Joe McCarthy Blues,” Chris Buhalis (chrisbuhalis.com)
18. The Year of the Elephants, Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet (Pi Recordings)- (Box 1849, NY NY 10025)
19. Johnny Otis Show-Cold Shot / Snatch and the Poontangs (Ace UK)-Brilliantly filthy-minded R&B, including two versions of Otis’s great “The Signifyin’ Monkey,” and stuff like “Two Time Slim” that’s essentially a West Coast answer to the Last Poets, thus a late ’60s prefiguration of hip-hop.
20. Bluegrass and White Snow, Patty Loveless (Columbia advance)-Best bluegrass Christmas album ever.
DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org