In his feature film debut Eminem is Jimmy Smith Jr. a poor aspiring rapper living in a trailer park on Detroit’s 8 Mile Rd.–the city’s perimeter road which separates it from the ‘burbs or more specifically the blacks from the whites. After breaking up with his girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning) Jimmy nicknamed “Rabbit ” heads back to the trailer park to live with his mom (Kim Basinger) a lush with a penchant for bingo. He gets a day job in a factory so he can save enough money to get back on his feet but at night heads to the Shelter a hip-hop club where the city’s best rappers “battle” each other in 45-second rounds of verbally abusive rhymes. Even though his friends including Shelter MC Future (Mekhi Phifer) believe in him Rabbit suffers stage fright and freezes like a deer in the headlights when it comes to competition time. But he realizes his entire future–and getting out of Detroit–rests on making it in the hip-hop world and cutting his own demo. To do so Rabbit must first find his voice and win a coveted battle. The battles whether you like hip-hop or not are worth the price of admission alone.
According to Eminem whose real name is Marshall Mathers III this film is part real and part made-up. But his character gets a complete Hollywood makeover here and it’s glaringly easy to discern fact from fiction. 8 Mile‘s Rabbit for example is concerned with gun violence (Eminem was arrested twice in 2000 for weapons violations for which he received probation). And when a coworker starts harassing one of Rabbit’s gay coworkers he breaks into a defensive rhyme: “Why you f***ing with the gay guy G? You’re the one with the HIV.” Audiences longing for a compassionate and caring version Eminem won’t be disappointed. In his big screen debut Eminem is convincing and hardly afraid to show a soft and vulnerable side. He’s a rapper and lyricist at heart however and his spiels often take on a cadence similar to his rap style. As Rabbit’s buddy Future Phifer is solid and their relationship on screen is believable and endearing. Brittany Murphy is also great as the skanky Alex whose plan is to get out of Detroit by sleeping with all the wrong people. Basinger however delivers a bland performance as the drunk mom whining about her teen boyfriend’s lack of sexual prowess.
Director Curtis Hanson scored Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Director and won Best Adapted Screenplay in 1997 for the drama L.A. Confidential which is one reason there is more than a bit of buzz surrounding 8 Mile. The film is good but it’s not Oscar worthy. Hanson paints a gritty and realistic portrait of the Murder City circa 1995 but the film’s problem lies with the story written by The Mod Squad scribe Scott Silver. For one week viewers get a voyeuristic peek into Rabbit’s life: he beats people up works hard has sex gets beaten up and sometimes raps. It’s a stagnant view that never seems to go anywhere. While we know what happens to his mom–she wins big at bingo washes her hair and does the groceries–we never find out what happens to Rabbit. We can’t even assume the film leaves off where Eminem‘s career starts because it’s not a biopic. But despite the weak story Hanson commands a strong performance from Eminem and showcases both the rapper’s newfound acting abilities and his musical talent. Considering the film’s strength lies in Eminem it’s surprising there weren’t more musical performances from the Grammy-winning rapper.