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Turrisi Takes on the Movies

‘8 Mile’ **½

Turrisi, Andrew T. III MD

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Professor and Chair Department of Radiation Oncology Medical University of South Carolina

Starring Eminem (Marshal Mathers), Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, and Brittany Murphy. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Written by Scott Silver. Rated R, 110 minutes

Anyone with Detroit connections will find some connections with this movie, which is more a wasteland than a beacon to anything of value.

Many have wondered if the purpose is more to scrub the Eminem image from some of its unpleasant aspects of misogyny and homophobia than to deliver entertainment with plot and character development. But a white hip-hopper named Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem, from Oakland, Michigan, aspires to be a king of hip hop attired in droopy-drawered mufti of the current generation. This movie creates a cinematic window on stuff white folks don't know about: rap shoot-outs with words rather than bullets.

Detroit suffered white emigration to the surrounding suburban countryside in the early ‘70s as the nation's motor city also economically imploded with more Japanese and German car success stories and fewer victories for GM and Ford. Not only was there mistrust between the races but also between the cultures of those who moved out to the northern and western’ burbs and commuted for auto worker jobs or outright abandonment for new jobs and new malls in places like Birmingham, Rochester, and Livonia.

My folks moved to Northville (which is west) and lived near 6 Mile. Their view out the back window was the landscape of the psychiatric hospital, now replaced and dotted with expensive homes. 8 Mile was also called “Baseline” as it marked the in-bounds of the city when it reached Detroit, and the other side of the line. It used to be that the area code for the entire area was 313” but as the movie reminds us, 313 is now for the home-boy team living in Motown, with 810 marking the other side.

Marshal Mathers, no relation as best I can tell to Jerry Mathers of Leave It to Beaver, evolved into the phonetic spelling of his initials, Eminem, in order to evolve from a suburbanite on one side of 8 Mile to a city kid with aspirations of articulating the rap of the city.

The movie is an entertaining version of this transition, where Eminem plays himself as Jimmy Smith, a white guy with a mouth for rap, but a weak stomach as he loses his lunch preparing for a verbal shoot-out in a locked bathroom.

“The value system here is simply not something that I find worth all the praise that this movie has received.”

While he has the mouth and the brains, he initially doesn't have the guts, and he silently chokes as he is introduced by his black buddy, Future, played by a dreadlocked Mikhi Phifer.

Jimmy is also called Rabbit, which has nothing to do with his ability to “hip-hop”—it's mommy's cutesy-pie name for him as a youngster.

Eminem and Jimmy typify sullen and malcontent. His only melt to warm comes when his baby sister, Lily (Chloe Greenfield) makes an appearance. She is an adorable kid, in an unpleasant situation. Jimmy has apparently knocked up his girl friend Janeane (Taryn Manning), who aptly plays a typical white-trash girlfriend for Jimmy.

While he can rap with the best and understand many situations, Jimmy cannot deal with his relational catastrophe. Morality is not on the agenda, however, for this glib tableau to portray Eminem as a modern-day Elvis, translating black culture and rap for us hopeless white folks.

Figure. Andrew T. Tu...
Figure. Andrew T. Tu...
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But the movie rises and falls on a culture war between two sides of the alleged divide that 8 Mile Road provides. This divide is more than 30 years old and has economic and social roots that rap doesn't communicate, just as Eminem doesn't seem to able to communicate with Janeane.

Instead of dealing, Jimmy straddles the line between the trailer-park life he was raised in on the white side of the baseline and the subculture of Black Detroit, sort of a Johnny-come-lately to the rap scene. It seems that Black Detroit represents aspiration and hope where the trailer park is desperation.

The reclusive beauty Kim Basinger walks through her lines without credibility—not because she's too beautiful, which she is, but because she has a loser boyfriend, Greg, her son's age-mate, hoping for his litigation check to come in to rescue her and little Lily. She and Greg demonstrate perhaps why Rabbit has relational dysfunction, as well as why he would rather be a Black man than a denizen of the 8 Mile Trailer Park.

Brittany Murphy plays Alex, a steamy ambitious hottie, Jimmy's love interest. She has ambiguously colored hair but carries her ambiguity into her affections. Apparently anything goes that gives her a better opportunity for getting out of either side of 8 Mile. Both she and Jimmy want something better than what their fate has served up.

Both choose a black impresario to find connections for their career. Her interest in the malcontent Jimmy is never developed—it just is served up as miraculous fact. She has the hots for Jimmy with his knit watch-cap pulled tightly over his head and his on-the-job difficulties at the New Detroit Press, his pay check until he gets his recording contract.

Jimmy's bravado and ultimate ability to deliver a knockout punch rap are his claim to redeeming social values. He stands up to Greg and dukes it out with him. He sucker-punches his would-be savior when he finds him enjoying his girlfriend. He cleverly wins the rap shoot-out by acknowledging his weaknesses, but like the now ordinary campaign ads, redefines his adversary. The definition includes disrespecting him because he does not live within the 313 area code, lives with parents who remain married, and went to a good school and got good grades.

These indeed are flaws in this world, and that value system is simply not something that I find worth all the praise this paltry movie has received.

There is a cast of buffoons offered to contrast the cool of Jimmy Smith with ordinary mortals. The bad guys are called “The Leaders of the Free World,” perhaps a swipe at George W and Tony Blair. His buddy, Cheddar Bob, could probably wear Bozo make-up to leave no doubt that he is a clown.

Only little Lily made me smile. The story was weak, Eminem implausible, Kim Basinger somnolent, and only Future displayed any redeeming characteristics by his unswerving loyalty to Jimmy and his talent. I had to wonder why he bothered.

Even more so why Curtis Hanson, who had two straight decent efforts in LA Confidential and Wonder Boys, picked this as his next vehicle.

Go see it if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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