Movie stars radiate a power – physical, erotic, spiritual – that draws an audience into their orbit. Yet watching Curtis Hanson’s gritty and electrifying 8 Mile, the first thing you notice about Eminem, the most scaldingly powerful artist in pop music today, is how vulnerable he looks. In what might be the scrungiest inner-city bathroom in the United States, he stares into a mirror under pea-green fluorescent light, swathed in a hooded tracksuit and wool cap as he bounces like a manic boxer to the rap beat playing on his headphones. Those layers of clothing are a Detroit B-boy’s standard jailhouse-pasha uniform, but on Eminem, they look more like a baby’s protective padding. It’s hard to tell, at a glance, if his jittery presence is a reflection of all the anger he’s got pent up inside or of how nervous he is about letting it out.
Emerging from the bathroom, Eminem gets up on stage, in what looks like a dank and teeming underground cavern, to compete in an improvised rap duel. He’s the only white competitor, more or less the only white face in the room; handed a microphone, he freezes, too scared to rap out a syllable. The sight of Eminem up on stage, cut off from the antic rush of his words, is no small shock, but the paradoxical effect is to make the audience lean in all the more, desperate to see – to feel – what’s going on inside him.
Set in 1995, in some of the most bombed-out sections of Detroit, that gray zone of urban despair, ”8 Mile” is a hip-hop fable built around bits and pieces of Eminem’s life and mythology, but it has an unruly immediacy all its own. Even when the script is only adequate, Hanson’s staging is joltingly alive. Cast as Jimmy ”Rabbit” Smith, who works in a metal-stamping factory and crashes with his deadbeat mom (Kim Basinger) in a trailer park on the wrong side of 8 Mile Road, Eminem wears his close-cropped hair without his usual platinum dye job, and the effect is to tone down the implacable, Timothy-McVeigh-as-glam-skinhead aura he has on stage and in his videos. Small-boned and not very tall, with chiseled features that have a moody, impassive delicacy, Eminem holds his aggression back, projecting the scurrilous, soft-eyed yearning of a hip-hop James Dean.
Are we seeing a scandalous pop star toned down for the mainstream movie audience? Only if you expect the brazenly incorrect, how-bad-can-I-be outrage of Eminem’s wildest wordplay and haven’t registered the pain and self-mockery and emotional acid – the howl of humanity – that drives it. In ”8 Mile,” Rabbit lets out his rap little by little, falling into impromptu duels in a parking garage or by the factory food cart. The movie, in a strategy at once daring and shrewd, makes you wait for his performance as it emerges – and grows in force – out of the blistering, no-hope scrappiness of his daily grind. When Rabbit finally does let go, pouring his desolation into the raging wit of his rhymes, it’s a catharsis for the audience, like one of Dean’s on-screen breakdowns. Yet what makes Eminem a true star in ”8 Mile” isn’t just the mesmerizing urgency of his raps. It’s the power of what he doesn’t say.
”8 Mile” has a galvanizing theme, which is the new, below-the-skin unity of black and white America rising up out of, though hardly limited to, the culture of the dispossessed. Rabbit hangs out with a posse that includes Future (Mekhi Phifer), the generous, high-spirited rap-contest organizer and MC; the roly-poly dreamer Sol (Omar Benson Miller); the scolding activist Iz (De’Angelo Wilson); and the gun-toting doofus Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones). The flowing camaraderie of this crew, with its bumptiously funny horseplay and ”Yo, dog!” razzing, is at the heart of the movie, and I think it will prove resonant for audiences of every race, precisely because the style of multicultural ghetto fusion isn’t overstated; it’s just there. The movie is weaker when it does state things, like Rabbit’s dilemma of being caught between mentors. Future can’t offer him much more than the neighborhood glory of another Friday-night contest, and so Rabbit is tempted to throw in his lot with Wink (Eugene Byrd), who claims to have the connections to net him a record deal. Does he or doesn’t he?
It’s never clear, and the whole cautionary, don’t-trust-the-local-hustler plot feels forced. Kim Basinger, as Rabbit’s dissolute mom, has to serve up a lot of shrill whining, yet the trailer-home scenes do their job; they dramatize Rabbit’s fear of failure – of having no life. When Brittany Murphy shows up as a short-skirted cuddlebug who digs Rabbit and his raps, the relationship they fall into isn’t very developed, but that’s part of the point; it’s just a respite. The two meet by giving each other the finger, as if they were part of the ”F— you!” generation. They have sex in Rabbit’s factory, their writhing counterpointed by the clank of the machines, and it’s an affecting moment – a desperate oasis in a world of heavy metal.
By the end of ”8 Mile,” our desire to see Rabbit let out his rage is palpable, and the big rap contest is one of the most purely exciting scenes the movies have given us in years. All of the performers are terrific, but the triumph of Rabbit’s rap lies in how far he’ll go – to dis somebody, to dis himself, to twist and syncopate and loop-the-loop his rhymes into an unholy ricochet of iambic fury. More than just a rap, he’s laying down a Song of Himself. It’s the sound of a life of fear and fever that has suddenly found its voice.