In the opening frames of Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the viewer sees Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith (Eminem), as he vomits in a hip-hop club’s dingy bathroom. Rabbit, a white trailer-dwelling rapper who spends his days in a grim metal pressing plant and his nights bouncing around Detroit’s hip-hop scene, stands apart from the typical hip-hop performer in that he wears vulnerability on his sleeve. Rather than boasting about his bitches, benjamins, and bottles of Cristal champagne (or desire for the same), he raps mostly about personal struggles and weakness.
At it’s core, 8 Mile borrows the clichés and plot devices of a sports film: a defeat at the beginning, romance and "training" scenes (scribbling lyrics) in the middle, and a victory at the end. Except for Eminem’s own brilliant lyrics, there’s little to recommend the script itself. The film’s compelling episodic structure and careful characterization owes itself to Hanson’s talents as a director. In films like L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Hanson creates deeply morally flawed worlds where protagonists struggle (with varying degrees of success) to retain personal decency amidst moral bankruptcy. 8 Mile fits Hanson’s directorial mold and, on his way, the Nevada-born director coaches Eminem to what’s probably a big-time pop star’s best performance since the Beatles stepped off the train in A Hard Day’s Night. It’s made easier by the fact that Rabbit is, of course, essentially a version of Eminem himself, but it’s an achievement nonetheless.
Nearly every review in the mainstream media says that 8 Mile has a happy ending and, in that, Rabbit wins a rap battle and establishes a "rep" in the hip-hop world, his life has improved by the end. But when the credits roll, his dissolute mother Stephanie (Kim Bassinger) still "cares for" his beloved kid sister, he’s lost his girlfriend (admittedly, more because of her own slutiness than anything he did), and still works in the sheet metal factory. The movie’s final scene shows Rabbit returning to his dead-end job rather than celebrating his victory with Cristal and sex: this is a recognition that he’s a decent, hard-working person and also a level-headed acknowledgement that street cred alone can not change one’s life for the better. Happy? Maybe. But it’s still cynical about hip-hop’s ability to change the world.
8 Mile’s true social importance, indeed, comes in the way it establishes rap as a viable art form through this acknowledgement. Eminem, for all his vulgarity, raps with emotional sincerity and humor. Although he’s sometimes documenting the hard-knock life in the suburban Detroit ghetto where he grew up, his allusions to violence often come in jest. In the song "I’m Shady," the raper begins:
Who came through with two glocks to terrorize your borough (Huh?)
Told you how to slap dips and murder your girl (I did)
Gave you all the finger and told you to sit and twirl
Sold a billion tapes and still screamed f--k the world.
Eminem’s own lyrics, time and again, mock the very idea that music—even hip-hop—will radically alter the world. Little legitimate art, it’s true, can avoid conveying some sort of political message but a sure sign of an art’s immaturity is a proclamation that it will change the entire world. No art or medium ever has by itself. But anything new—from theater in Elizabethan England to jazz during the 1920s—draws suspicion from those who believe that avant-garde art threatens to overthrow the mores of established civilization. Much hip-hop is music is horribly violent—although, unlike heavy metal, it tends to document violence and evil rather than actively promoting it—but some of it shows talent. Along with Eminem, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog rank amongst the best pop lyricists and most energetic stage performers of the modern era. But, for all their bluster, they’re likely smart enough to realize that the music isn’t going to change the world. This proves that hip-hop has matured and become a part of mainstream American culture. And 8 Mile recognizes this.