Class Act

Gentleman caller: Eminem with Brittany Murphy in '8 Mile'
Universal Studios

When I mentioned to a friend that the racial boundary-crossing among Generation Why may warrant some kind of scholarly investigation, he nodded sympathetically and told me that, while I was at it, I might want to look into this trendy new fashion item all the kids are wearing called "shoes." Point taken. So there's probably nothing surprising about the fact that Eminem's "313" posse in the fictionalized biopic 8 Mile is so comfortably multiracial as to affectionately call the white boy not just "nigger" but "Negro." The better question may be why this Eminem character has any friends at all.

Bunny Rabbit--a.k.a. Jimmy Smith Jr.--sure isn't fun to be around. He's got anger management issues: Little Bunny Fu Fu likes to bop feuding field mice on the head. And though Rabbit's quest to become the Rocky of battle rap is a point of suspense throughout the film, Eminem's mournful visage and marble eyes make this man the undisputed heavyweight champion of brooding.

His least attractive trait may be that he's so vain that he probably thinks this movie is about him. Granted, it is. Which is the only way to explain why a constant stream of friends and supporters tromp out to Rabbit's shadowy warren in a trailer park without calling ahead. It makes sense that the hustling scene-maker, Wink (Eugene Byrd), would chase after Rabbit's talent. But I wonder why the charismatic MC named Future (Mekhi Phifer) would want to leave the movie of his own life to be a supporting player here. We've come a long way, baby, from the collective hip-hop uplift of 1982's Wild Style, whose communal energy now seems like a relic of the WPA. The politics and religion of American movies today are all about singing the Song of Myself, with "carpe diem" acting as Constitution and Ten Commandments. Every character in Scott Silver's screenplay--whether white or black, man or ', woman--exists solely to advance or impede Rabbit's self-actualization.

Even the bullies, a competing rap crew called the Leaders of the Free World, are willing to make a house call when the time comes to pummel the Wascally Wabbit. I'm not sure if logic dictates that Eminem's status as an anti-hero makes these black men the heroes of this movie. But I can't help but feel they get a bad shake. Sure, their most talented MC humiliates Rabbit onstage at the subterranean club called the Shelter in front of an all-black audience. (Beforehand, Elvis/Vanilla Ice/Beaver Cleaver snaps lunch all over his sweatshirt in stage fright--a spectacle that tasteful director Curtis Hanson shoots from a polite distance, though Em's core audience would probably get a kick out of seeing it in close-up.) But "Papa Doc" doesn't say anything crueler than what Rabbit lays on his own much-abused cronies--or what he finally, scathingly claims onstage as his heritage and identity.

With its bombed-out buildings and cashed pipe dreams, 8 Mile is tangibly a film about class. Rabbit's bus ride to his grim factory job is the Detroit caste equivalent of wearing leather pants and flipping hamburgers in Bombay. To topple Papa Doc, Rabbit plays the class card on him: Brother went to an elite private school. Yet it's hard not to see their spat as a game of dozens that's gone a little too far. Why the great white hope and this strawman-turned-scarecrow can't hug afterward only makes sense in a hypermasculine social sphere where we're supposed to mourn Tupac for being shot, allegedly, by a guy he'd assaulted.

8 Mile takes place in the unchaperoned backwaters of this youth universe, practically out of sight of adults. When Rabbit's mother (Kim Basinger) finally puts down the bottle and puts on her clothes, you half expect her to speak in the melodic honks of Peanuts. Basinger seems unsure of her place in this realm--or at least unsure of how thick to lay on the hillbilly accent--which may explain why she ends up resembling the pathetic matron of a Tennessee Williams play. Come to think of it, though I enjoyed 8 Mile a lot for its sober style, electric freestyle sequences, and palpable grit, I'd like to see what havoc Eminem could wreak on The Glass Menagerie--another tale of frustrated ambitions, monstrous moms, and angelic kid sisters. Already the preeminent bullshitter in America's china shop, Eminem may enjoy some other drama than that of being himself.

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