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Monday, November 11, 2002
Updated: November 12, 12:50 PM ET
Eminem knocks 'em out

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

If Eminem was a boxer, he'd be ...

Eminem
Eminem's got that James Dean thing going in "8 Mile."
Best answer I could come up with, while watching "8 Mile" with a theater full of curiosity seekers who became converts, is a combination Sugar Ray Leonard, Billy Conn and Rocky. Not the greatest heavyweight, but a scientific light-heavy of world-class speed and boxing abilities, who'd outpoint Joe Louis, if he was more careful. Not the original, but a hell of a duplicate. An upset special, a new thing, his own thing, sweet as sugar, coming fresh, full, from an ugly, forgotten space.

Eminem, personifying the inextinguishable human spirit?

Dig it.

Why boxing, though? That's the metaphor director Curtis Hanson encourages. Can't blame him. Rap, as personified by Eminem in "8 Mile," is pure single combat. I kept waiting for Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns or Emanuel Steward to do a walk-through. I half-expected to see the Kronk gym as a location.

For years, 8 Mile Road was the dividing line between inner city Detroit and the beginning of suburbia. Now the boundary may be 16 Mile, or farther out, but the boundary is really our own minds. "8 Mile" owes a lot to "Rocky"; whether that many people can relate to it, on that level, we'll soon see.

You have to say, off the top, that $54 mil on the opening weekend cannot all be laid at the door of good marketing, A&P, and racial ID'ing -- what John Avildsen called "simple dramaturgy to help the audience identify," when he directed "Rocky III." Something more's here. Professional, and yeah, stock filmmaking, but also compelling narrative, told in a storyteller's way.

The movie reveals both common inner worlds we all inhabit, worlds of unmindful, flawed parents, our own insecurities and desire to be freed, to make ourselves understood, set in a world we might not wish to inhabit, but want to understand.

I know inner city Detroit, home of Lions, Tigers and a bear of a life, Red Wings, bronze statue of the first of Joe Louis, despair, the Rust Belt, looming, mostly closed down factories, the abandoned houses, abandoned lives, dope-on-a-rope, the rope leading down to a hellish inferno. Hanson gets it. Just go there and start shooting? Not so simple. The movie owes a lot to the autobiographical story of Eminem, but also has many echoes: of "American Graffiti," and "Blue Collar," and "Undisputed," and "Good Will Hunting," and "Rocky." That's a pretty good pedigree to be reminding me of.

Nashawn  Breedlove, Eminem
Eminem's Jimmy "battles" on stage with Nashawn Breedlove as Lotto.
Beyond that, the camera loves Eminem. It's soul-kissing him from the very first frames. He's a star partially because it doesn't seem important to him. He's got that James Dean thing. He put in some overtime on the acting craft too, because he is believable, partially because he's playing himself, but also because he is learning that he is someone who can transport us to another place with a look.

The story, like most good stories, is fairly simple. A young man is stuck fast and glued to a common culture that seems on the surface to be not his own; in this case, the culture of hip-hop, hardcore rap. He has a genius for it, a genius his associates and friends consider a curiosity they can possibly exploit for their own amusements. But his is a genius that could take him a lot further than that. Only his real friend, if there is one (there is), would like to see happen.

Mekhi Phifer, as Future (in the Ben Affleck "Good Will Hunting" role), performs this function for Eminem's character, Jimmy, also called "B. Rabbit." Future sponsors his friend B. Rabbit, wants to champion him, even though Rabbit is reluctant to throw down in the weekend rap "battles" that Future sponsors, out of ... what, fear? He doesn't seem to be afraid of anything else. In fact, he's ready to physically scrap at the drop of a hat, for any perceived slight. He should be down with Steward at the Kronk gym.

Like many ghetto youth, he's all nerve endings, eyes; if you didn't know he could rhyme, you'd never suspect he'd be in the mood for it. Not at first. As he travels around the city by bus and rusted-out auto with his friends, the stock comic relief that makes them all more relatable to us as viewers, the movie brings in "American Graffiti"; here we get Hanson's comment that the film was a "love letter" to Detroit. Not Detroit itself, but to the young people who grow up there.

Several mocking references are made to B. Rabbit as "Elvis" by his car-hopping friends, in a tacit acknowledgement and acceptance that music (or cultural form, if you don't consider rap to be music) that is most often originated by black folk is often taken to commercial heights by white performers, who start out not trying to exploit the form as much as they are trying to express themselves and their personal admiration of it. It becomes them, their form, as much as it is the originators'. Eminem is rap, just as much as Tupac. The camera dug Tupac. But not as much as it laps up some Eminem.

The commodification of hip-hop (or any potentially artistic form, like hoop, say, or film itself) is not new, nor limited to Eminem, or other white performers. Ja Rule, for example, came in the void left by Tupac's death. Anyone who has heard both knows Rule was inspired by Tupac, got in with Jay-Z because of a rasping vocal similarity to Tupac -- even though he does not have the facility or the lyrical ability of Tupac. In that sense, Ja Rule is McDonald's -- he is and will be commercially successful, a lot of people will eat up his stuff, but it is not as nourishing as a home-cooked meal by any stretch; it is pop art, and not the same kind of authentic folk art as, say, a tureen of homemade New Orleans gumbo.

In this way, Eminem is truly original folk art. All Detroiters have a twang in their speech, a Yankee "are" to "car," "bar," "star," "where," soda is "pop." Beyond that, they have a way with music, as Madonna to Motown prove. Detroit was "Hitsville U.S.A" long before it was "Hockeytown." "8 Mile" gives us the interior motivation for the townsfolks' need to express this way, to take it to the next stage.

Brittany Murphy, Eminem
Brittany Murphy has a complex and intriguing "relationship" with Eminem in "8 Mile."
In the early 21st century, the stage is host to a "battle," a verbal fight between B. Rabbit and several "contenders," leading to a fight with the "champion," so-called "Papa Doc," leader of an ominous crew called "Free World," rival to Eminem's "313" roadies. When the fight comes off, complete with Phifer as instigating MC Future, viewed and judged by a roaring, moving, flowing crowd of social sycophants, serving as their own authentication and judges for once, ("Undisputed" here) it is similar to a "Hit Man" Hearns vs. Cuevas or Duran fight, more than a mere vocal talent contest.

The crowd I watched it with loved it. Ate it up. They cheered and clapped, some roaring almost as loudly as the crowd on film.

There are incongruities here, but that's most often the case, since there are few perfect re-creations on film or page. The fallacies I notice are not the same ones most normal reviewers will point out.

Some will say Kim Basinger looks out of place as a trailer park mom. Like Kim Basinger comes from Newport, R.I. She's a small-town homegrown Georgia girl they used to call "nigger lips" when she was growing up; in fact, good-looking Southern women like her, black and white, married and came to Detroit for better-life factory work for their providers. Life, love and betrayal happened to them too. There is no pigmentation to it. This was before auto factory work was turned out to Asian or Latin American factories unsullied by the UAW. This is touched on in a unspoken way, thus the "Blue Collar" connect within "8 Mile."

I didn't find Basinger or her character incongruous; the "men" who pass through her life are given more status than her son, in hopes they will bail her out. That thinking got her into her predicament in the first place. This is also an outcome many single mothers and their sons battle. "Rabbit" makes art of it. In the last reel, before the ending "battle," smoker, fight, she hits at bingo, wins $3,200, enough to pay six months' worth of trailer park back rent with half left to tide her over; it ties up her end, almost feels like a tag-on. But it's not like it runs the film into a brick wall or gasoline truck.

Simple story. We're transported to a world (a completely authentic world -- believe me, I've been there as a young man, and know) where a group of young men, wild but somehow made likeable (Scott Silver, the writer, deserves credit for this) are then pitted against another group of young men, wild and much less likeable, ominous.

The romantic angle (one could hardly call it love angle) is filled well by Brittany Murphy, who is on the make as a would-be model, and looking to bounce from an environment she and Rabbit know might have been a good-enough place to grow up in, but will be suicidal to be grown up in. She registers saucy, sexy, unafraid. Their brief, convincing "relationship" is complex and intriguing enough to have her betraying him, somewhat, and egging on his talent, and being there for him, and then shooting the bird to him after his final triumph. He smiles and reciprocates.

  The movie also reveals something of the unconquerable soul of Detroit, just as "Rocky" did about the soul of Philly. When constructing a movie hero, one must make him or her winning to the audience. There are a variety of ways -- extreme beauty or handsomeness, having the hero endure undeserved misfortune, giving the hero great skill. Eminem? Check, check and check. 
  

It works. It all works. The movie seems constructed to reveal, if not explain, this connect between Eminem and his audience. It can be the mostly black authenticators of his hometown of Detroit, in a dingy building where MCs are spinning and mixing beats; it can be the white youth in those suburbs, out beyond 16 Mile, out across America, and the world, even, who "get it," the magic of the well-told tale, if not the misfortune it tells.

Or it can be a solo audience of Dr. Dre, who gets demos from all over, with vocal "contenders" literally begging for the famous producer's dispensation of their happiness. Dre understands that rhythm, "beats," are the bottom line of all this social madness -- he picks Marshall Bruce Mathers, aka Eminem, to be his signature artist, his champion, in the wide wake of Tupac Shakur (I'm no real deep expert on hip-hop, but I kind of understand social madness and like music, and am nearly certain I understand lyrics.

Example: There's no comparing Biggie to Tupac, not without intimidation from the Biggie crowd -- all of P.Diddy's underlying tracks are just bites, Herb Albert's "Rise," or Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out," Biggie's house-music, buttery-Jamaican voice overlaid; Tupac, on the other hand, along with Dr. Dre, formed original beats and tracks, and lyrically, he described an entire universe, not just one inhabited by Cristal, crack and 'hos. Ever heard, "I Ain't Mad At You"? You should. And who hasn't bounced along to the less reflective but joyful "California Love"?)

One incongruity in "8 Mile" was having rank-and-file workers at an auto plant having a rap battle at lunch break. Maybe it happens, but it just seemed a bit forced. Eminem comes to the vocal rescue of a gay auto worker, and it strikes me as pandering, since gays have been offended (or, in some cases, been told they should be offended) by some of Eminem's lyrics that use the word faggot like a club. "Nigger" is used in the film like, say, "dude." Once, when Phifer calls Eminem, "Negro," a more formal application of the same theory, it shows he sees no difference between them.

The movie illuminates, even though it's shot dark, blue and cool. The heat of Eminem, like the heat of Elvis, or Will Hunting, or Rocky, or Sugar Ray Leonard, makes up for it. The movie also reveals something of the unconquerable soul of Detroit, just as "Rocky" did about the soul of Philly. When constructing a movie hero, one must make him or her winning to the audience. There are a variety of ways -- extreme beauty or handsomeness, having the hero endure undeserved misfortune, giving the hero great skill.

Eminem? Check, check and check.

Eminem
Eminem heats up amid the dark, blue and cool scenes.
The camera loving him will be obvious to anybody who sees the movie. The way the turnstiles are clicking, that's going to end up being an awful lot of bullseyes, especially in the key 18-to-34 demographic. The undeserved misfortune is laid on thick -- maybe too thick. But the great skill, personified by Eminem in the final frames, closes the show, literally and figuratively. The example of his rapping skill in the movie is tight enough. But check out this lyric from "Cleaning Out My Closet," off "The Eminem Show" CD, which could be seen as a partial anthem for "8 Mile:"

... now I would never diss my own mama just to get recognition take a second to listen fool you think this record is dissing but put yourself in my position just try to envision witnessing your mama popping prescription pills in the kitchen bitching that someone's always going through her purse and s***'s missing going through public housing systems victim of Munchausen's syndrome my whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn't till I grew up now I blew up it makes you sick to your stomach doesn't it wasn't it the reason you made that CD for me, Ma, so you could try to justify the way you treated me, Ma, but guess what you're getting older now and it's cold when you're lonely and Nathan's growing up so quick he's gonna know that you're phony and Hayley's getting so big now you should see her she's beautiful but you'll never see her she won't even be at your funeral! See what hurts me the most you won't admit you was wrong bitch do your song keep telling yourself that you was a mom but how dare you try to take what you didn't help me to get you selfish bitch I hope you f****** burn in hell for this s***! Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me well guess what I am dead, dead to you as can be ... I'm sorry Mama ... I never meant to hurt you ... I never meant to make you cry but tonight I'm cleaning out my closet ..."

Eminem runs it all down in under 75 seconds, in such a facile way that, in spite of the fingernails-on-blackboard harshness of what he says, I defy you not to yo-yo your head along with him.

Not like this boy, Negro, wigger, native, son, or his movie?

Near impossible.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."