8 Miles High and Rising

Tom Horgen

Respected critics have let the prospect of Eminem’s acting ability plunder their reviews of “8 Mile.” This hotbed of anticipation was like a vice grip that needed unwinding. So let’s unwind quickly. He is good enough to draw emotional depth just by squinting his eyes and his charm makes the trembling camera follow his every move. But pondering Eminem’s acting seems trivial when compared to the film’s backward politics.

The film’s title, “8 Mile,” refers to the road that cuts through Detroit, separating black from white, city from suburb. Eminem’s character, an aspiring rapper named Rabbit, lives on the black side of the racial divide. From the outset, this film wants to be about race. Which is good, but director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) employs race in a dangerous way.

On one hand, Hanson unveils a hardened Detroit – the result of racial oppression. While on the other, he tells the story of a white man finding his own oppression in the black world of hip-hop. In his portrait of Detroit, we see houses and buildings left abandoned by the city. Rabbit and his crew of black friends torch an empty house where a white rapist was left uninterrupted with his young victim. Smaller details commenting on race drift in the background, barely noticeable. In one scene, an old melodrama about a mixed familyplays on a fuzzy TV. But opposed to Hanson’s evocation is the core of “8 Mile”: Rabbit’s quest for rap stardom. This is where Hanson looses his grip, stuttering into contradiction.

Rabbit’s quest contradicts the film’s good intentions because it finds him trudging through the adversity of being white. He finds solace in his friends, but other blacks, especially on stage, do not accept him and even detest his whiteness. In doing so, “8 Mile,” reverses The United States’ history of inequality. The viewer, no matter what color you are, is cajoled into investing emotional support in Rabbit. We identify with him because he is the underdog. Sounds outrageous, right? Minorities, and specifically blacks, have endured the plight of inequality for hundreds of years. Yet, “8 Mile” disregards this struggle by reversing the roles without a cry from the audience.

So how does “8 Mile” present such a problematic story and keep the audience complacent? It’s simple. The patriarchal ordering of our society demands that everyone – women, minorities, whoever – must watch movies as white men. The shackles of white male hegemony not only structure American film, but structure the way we watch it. Think about the people telling the stories, the voices behind the camera. There is a dominant similarity. Sadly, you can count the number of major black and female directors with 10 fingers and a couple toes. This lack of diversity keeps the hegemony in place. And “8 Mile” works alongside it by coaxing us into accepting Rabbit’s backward struggle for equality.

Of course, Eminem is key to our complacency. In pop-culture black fashion and speech have fused with the mainstream. It is fitting, in terms of “8 Mile,” that Eminem has been the only white celebrity to successfully appropriate the hardcore black hip-hop culture. And America loves him for it. He’s the dork that beat adversity, harnessed “coolness,” and now hangs with the cool kids.

This interpretation of “8 Mile” is threatened by reality, though. Eminem actually did emerge from Detroit’s black underground. But his real-life experience is unusual and should not outweigh history. And film has the tendency to pressure historical memory. Hanson’s film remains dangerous because his slick production almost hides the movie’s inversion of racism. First he reminds us of our oppressive history and then threatens to wash it away.

“8 Mile,” Rated R. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer. Now playing at area theaters.