Eminem's 8 Mile High

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ELI REED/UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Eminem plays "Jimmy" in 8 Mile

His mother lives hand to mouth in a grim trailer park. His girlfriends are mysteries to him. He works a dead-end job in a stamping factory. His pals are street dumb, clueless and infinitely distractable dreamers hanging around one of the bleakest slums anyone has ever dared to place on film — Eight Mile, the road that separates Detroit's essentially black ghetto from the white world.

Jimmy (Eminem) is a white guy with a gift for hip-hop, that blackest of pop-music genres, who has the implausible dream that his art might lift him out of hopelessness. That was once the dream of Eminem, who comes from the same place and the same hardscrabble background. With his music, Eminem succeeded beyond any fantasy. Now his screen debut shows that he has it in him to become an authentic movie star. He's a kid with the ability to put a sullen but seductive face on an open heart.


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His acting has the potential to draw in, even enchant people to whom hip-hop has been just a scary blare of rage emanating from the car drawn up next to them at a stop sign. Against their better judgment, they may even respond to the good nature, even the innocence, of this movie, its desire to — well, yes, let's use the deadly word — educate us about a world of scabrous lyrics and occasional murderous violence.

8 Mile borrows from the Star Is Born syndrome: talented tyro overcomes unlikely origins, his own insecurities and the world's indifference to emerge a winner. But the movie, wisely, doesn't push that conceit too far. Yes, when we meet Jimmy, he has choked before going into "battle" at a local rap den, unable even to open his mouth and exchange rhythmic insults with his opponent. And yes, having spent the week in other kinds of battles (some of them bloody) with his peers, his lovers, his mother's feckless housemate, his boss and his broken-down car, he wins his next rap battle — spitting vicious venom against a time clock. But the movie leaves him striding down a dark street alone with his thoughts. Does he have the will and the skill to follow the path the man playing him followed — from the street to the local clubs to recording to fame and fortune? We don't know.

And that's pretty much where the film's lead producer, Brian Grazer, and director, Curtis Hanson, want to leave us. Grazer was into hip-hop well before he launched this project. He says he first saw Eminem as the camera panned the audience at some music-award show and in those few seconds sensed his sexy charisma — which was not much on display at their first meeting. Eminem sat silent, avoiding Grazer's eyes, for a solid 15 minutes before venturing a few muttered words. "His indifference to me, to Hollywood, were palpable," the producer recalls.

But they eventually agreed to develop a script (by Scott Silver), and with Eminem attached, Grazer went looking for an A-list director. And there was Hanson. "I wanted someone who would give me the kind of adrenaline hits [he delivered in L.A. Confidential]," says Grazer. For his part, Hanson saw his main job as establishing trust with his star. He scheduled a long rehearsal period and began to see that Eminem had what movie stars have--"the ability to find some part of themselves in anything they play." Maybe that was a little easier for Eminem because 8 Mile was made entirely on his native ground. It is not directly autobiographical, but spiritually he could certainly connect with Jimmy's struggle.

Hanson connected to that struggle too. The director, who used two-camera, hand-held coverage throughout (his director of photography was Rodrigo Prieto, whose work electrifies this film as it did Amores Perros in 2000), fell in love with the "spirit" of 8 Mile during his 4 1/2-month Detroit shoot. He found the area "truly moving" and wanted "to give voice to" its humor, its refusal to be battered down by the miserable circumstances that this movie does not evade. "It's like a flower struggling through a crack in the cement," Hanson says. The club where the hip-hoppers battle was once a church. Now, says Hanson, "it's another kind of church"--obscenely secular, yet also a place where a very fundamental community comes raucously together. Ultimately, he believes that Eminem's biracial appeal derives from the fact that what he's rapping about is issues of class, not race.

8 Mile is not a documentary; it's a populist movie. Beneath its tough — no, filthy — talk and rough look, it is a fairy tale that — and this ought to be enough irony for the sniffiest Postmodernist — the unlikely career of its leading man proves can come true. There's something old-fashioned and dauntless about the way the film pushes past our initial resistance to its setting and subject matter, past pain, past defeat, to make this point. Because it rejects easy victories, this may be one of the few inspirational movies that could actually inspire someone, somewhere, sometime.