'8 Mile' gives Eminem same impression, new appeal

by Peter Jenks | 11/11/02 6:00am

When Eminem released "The Slim Shady LP" in February 1999, the reaction was fast and large in both range and volume. The album sold like crazy alongside ubiquitous critisism of both the music and the man as homophobic and misogynistic.

Eminem became the media's poster boy for violence and sex. People cited his album for its cutting criticism of everything from his fans to his mother and for his constant references to blood and murder.

After the release of his second album, "The Marshall Mathers LP," a year later, people began claiming that songs like "The Way I Am" and "Stan" were examples of the artist's true side, citing his abrasive Slim Shady alter ego as a mere stage act.

At the same time, the sophomore album set a record for first-week sales at 1.7 million copies, and Eminem was constantly claiming that the more he was criticized, the more people would buy his album.

He disappeared from the spotlight for most of 2001 while filming a movie and recording a new album, waiting for the storm to blow over. Then in the summer of 2002, he released his third album in four years, "The Eminem Show." Despite being banned by Wal-Mart and heavily pirated, the album was released on a Sunday, two days earlier than most albums. In that one day, the album sold 285,000 copies and took the No. 1 spot on the charts, the first album ever to do so with only one official day in stores.

Eminem's first film, "8 Mile," was released last Friday. As most people predicted, it was No. 1 in the box office over the weekend with over $54 million in ticket sales, the highest amount ever for an R-rated film. More impressively, the film did so while being shown on fewer that 2,500 screens, a relatively low number for the amount of money it made.

The film has been critically acclaimed, with the Wall Street Journal saying the film "stands head, shoulders and heart above every other Hollywood movie that we've seen so far this year." In addition, L.A. Weekly called Eminem's performance one of "riveting, flamboyantly expressive intensity." Even the hyper-critical New Yorker gave the film a mostly positive response.

"8 Mile" was directed by the respected Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys"), so it's no wonder that character conflict, both internal and external, is highlighted as the plot's driving force.

The film, which is loosely based on Eminem's own experiences in urban Detroit, is in many ways a sketch of Emi-nem's character, Jimmy Smith Jr., known to most of his friends as Bunny. The movie's title refers to the eight miles of neutral zone between the rough-and-tumble urban Detroit area and the mostly white, prosperous Oakland County suburbs.

The film centers around the many independent yet interwoven struggles that Bunny faces. Enormously talented as a rapper, Bunny seeks to find both a place where his rhymes will be accepted and where people who won't come to him with expectations.

This struggle is expressed in three separate arenas. At home, Bunny is struggling to hold onto his relationship with his young, single mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger) despite her abusive and alcoholic boyfriend, Luke (Michael Shannon), who is being promised a huge check as part of a legal settlement.

At work, Bunny tries to keep his job at a steel factory, an apparently impressive feat in the context of his relationships, while simultaneously trying not to give in to the dehumanizing effect of his endless labor.

Most important to Bunny is his rapping, which he sees not only as an artistic outlet for his identity but also as his ticket out of the vicious circle which his mother and so many of his peers are trapped in.

It is this last desire -- finding a way out -- which obsesses everyone in the film. Stuck in a world of boredom and poverty, everyone in the film is looking for some sort of redemption. For Bunny's mother, that way out is Luke's forthcoming check; for Bunny's eventual girlfriend Alex (Brittany Murphy), that way out is modeling. But for Bunny, along with his friends and enemies, that way is music, and the desperate drive for fame and prosperity is omnipresent in the film.

Bunny's best friend is Future (Mekhi Phifer). Future is Bunny's greatest advocate, encouraging him to participate in rap battles at the club Future owns. Bunny is reluctant, however; the pressure of success and the demands of an audience hold him back.

The picture focuses on Bunny's development not so much as a rapper -- the talent is always there -- but as a person. It seems his biggest asset is his rage, which allows him to cope with many of his problems. Eminem portrays Bunny's anger with poignant intensity.

In some of the most effective scenes of the movie, Bunny provokes fights, almost always with good reason. Usually, the reason has to do with a conflict over possession of some sort. Bunny fights Luke when he sees Luke hurt Bunny's mother, and he attacks one of his friends when he finds him having sex with Alex. There is also an ongoing conflict with Free World, a rival rap group to Bunny and his friends', that results in a number of conflicts.

In these fights, whether or not Bunny wins, his rage is most fully expressed and his character becomes the most appealing. That makes sense, since it is exactly that aspect of Eminem's music that has appealed to listeners -- the fearless audacity of his verbal strikes at anyone who dares comment on him or what he stands for.

The film gives Eminem a chance to humanize himself a bit. This is most apparent in his interaction with Lily (Chloe Greenfield), his mother's kindergarten-aged daughter. She is constantly on Bunny's mind when he is at home in his mother's trailer park. Even after his stirring fight with Luke, Bunny immediately turns his attention to Lily. Eminem interacts with her very naturally, likely because she is the same age as his real-life daughter.

In addition, Eminem tries to dispel stereotypes of himself as a woman-hater and a homophobe. He criticizes one of his co-workers during a lunch break for harassing a gay co-worker. The fight with Luke casts Bunny, and Eminem, in a good light too, since he is attempting to protect Bunny's mother from an abusive boyfriend.

Curtis Hanson's direction is seamless and focused, and the film never lags too much. He and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto work together to give the picture vivid imagery.

The depiction of the hopelessness of urban Detroit, whether Stephanie's trailer park or Bunny's workplace, is nearly overwhelming. The camera work is particularly impressive during a final rap sequence in Future's club, where Bunny's interaction with his audience is captured with a liveliness of its own.

The script is also quite good. Conversation is never contrived, and each character's words are consistent with the viewers' expectations of who they are.

Yet it is in this aspect that the film falls a bit short. The story, while moving, is far from original. That would not be a problem in itself, but stereotypes set the movie back. The picture hardly boasts a single unique character but rather features interaction between a number of preconceived ideas. Bunny's character, too, is run-of-the-mill. Were it not for the tremendous personality that Eminem brings to it, the entire film would be rather bland.

Yet at the same time, the story cointains myth in its purest form. In an archetypal manner, as Bunny lashes out at his surroundings, he is ultimately humbled. The power of his rage is that it is caused by circumstances around him that force him to come to grips with who he is. In the end, it is Bunny's humility that results in his ultimate victory, and his final verbal attack is one of challenging another's arrogance. When viewed in this light, the story that "8 Mile" tells is ultimately a redemptive one.

The movie's acting shines; there's hardly a weak performance. Basinger does a particularly convincing job, as her despair and joy are beautifully expressed throughout the film in perhaps its most demanding role. Phiffer and Murphy also give effective performances, although their roles aren't quite as demanding as Basinger.

As for Eminem's performance, it is breathtaking. But it is the same convincing act that he has been pulling ever since he set foot onto the market. He doesn't contrive a new persona for the role of Bunny but rather enhances the enormously charismatic personality that he already possessed. His clean-cut features and translucent skin enhance his passion, and the combination of these factors make the film.

In the raw and powerful final scene where Bunny finally breaks free from his inhibitions and lets forth a powerful verse of rhyme on the stage of Future's club, on everything from race to sex, the viewer is swept up into the controversial rapper's undeniable appeal.

It is this appeal that explains why Eminem has gotten this far. With "8 Mile" the king of weekend film, the movie's soundtrack on the top of Billboard's album charts and his single "Lose Yourself," atop the singles chart, Eminem has managed to become perhaps the most dominant multi-media star since the Beatles. All this is even more impressive since he has done it purely as a hip-hop artist, who for years have been pigeonholed as only appealing to a select audience.

Eminem put everything on the line when he agreed to make "8 Mile." Either he would put the crown on his music career, or he would begin its eventual demise.

"8 Mile" turns out to be that crowning moment. All that remains to be seen for Eminem is how long it all will last and what history will say about him.

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