After watching the extras on the Wonder Boys DVD, extras that featured the city of Pittsburgh quite a bit, the amount of care and detail that Curtis Hanson put into his movies was quite obvious. His two works that preceded 8 Mile were complete films that felt so real that they border on being documentaries. Hanson continues his level of excellent filmmaking in 8 Mile, a story about a young man living in Detroit whose only way out of the slums is through rap. And while a small part of it is formulaic, the film is powerful, extremely well made, extremely well written, extremely well acted and is one of the best movies to come out this year.
Much will be said about this film and its oft-controversial star and real-life rapper, Eminem. Eminem, real name Marshall Mathers, will most likely be the focus of the media and what gets this film attention. He will also likely be the reason why many young people will see the film. The good news is he is worth every penny. Eminem plays Bunny Rabbit, a white kid living in the white part of the Detroit 'hood. He's just broken up with his girlfriend and is forced to stay with his well-meaning but helpless mother, played by Oscar winner Kim Basinger. Rabbit's only way out of the 'hood is to use his talents as a rapper, something at which he is infinitely gifted. Rabbit has to try to make it to the big life but quickly learns that he has to get the small life in order first.
The relationship between mother and son is quite compelling. On one hand, you have a son who often despises his mother, but his feelings are created by his mom's unwillingness to act and help herself. And while they butt heads all the time and he shows nothing but resentment for her, his rap name (yes, Bunny Rabbit is not his real name) is his mother's nickname for him when he was a child. This is one of the many relationships in the film that control Rabbit's life. All are genuine and real and all have a lot emotion behind them. We see Rabbit as a friend, a brother, a son and a father. It is these relationships that keep the movie grounded and keep it real.
The true strength of 8 Mile is how real it is. Curtis Hanson's Detroit is as authentic as Antoine Fuqua's South Central LA was in Training Day. Hanson washes the suburbs of Detroit in a steely blue palette that is both cold and haunting. You never for a second get the feeling that you are in a Hollywood back lot 20 minutes from four different beaches. You are there, always there, as the camera remains close and very personal. In a trailer, you feel the claustrophobia of the physical trailer and the characters' lives. The streets feel like they belong to a long-forgotten and abandoned town. Hanson here creates not the stereotypical "urban city", in which a Glock 9 lurks around every corner and people get shot for breathing. Hanson creates a sympathetic Detroit, a city that is a black hole in which people run the danger of wasting their lives. A city that constantly eats itself up. It is a city that makes you believe the characters' desperation and need for change.
This aspect of the city contributes to making the characters believable. Rabbit's desperation to leave his city is not out of a fear of being shot in a drive-by or the fear of being beaten by corrupt cops. Rabbit wants to leave out of fear of the normalcy and drudgery of the real life he has lived. It is something that many people can relate to and it is something that makes the film hit home even more. At the core of the film is something everyone can relate to, regardless of whether they have an extraordinary talent. The characters are real and therefore the story becomes very personal; it is a story to which everyone can feel a connection, even though they might have nothing in common with the main character.
Hanson also doesn't marginalize or trivialize his characters. Never does he fall into stereotypes or pre-conceptions. The fact that Rabbit is white is never an issue unless it naturally feels that it would be. Even when it does come up, it is not addressed head-on and is only treated as a minor point, which it actually is. While it might seem that it is a story of a white rapper trying to make it, it is not portrayed that way. Rabbit has much more to him than being a white rapper. The supporting cast are more than his black friends. Never does the film fall into racial stereotypes; in fact, there is a clever twist in the film that plays an anti-race card, so to speak. And while the so-called villains of the piece are your clichéd bad guys in black, they are more there to serve as instigator than narrative driver. But ultimately, the characters feel real because they are not stereotyped and are written with honesty and sincerity. The final, and most surprising, terrific aspect of the film is the authenticity of the culture in which it lives. The slang is real, the clubs are real, the lives lead by the people in the film are real and the music is absolutely dead on. It is truly a great piece of work how Hanson managed to keep that aspect of the film authentic. It never feels Hollywood. While the music itself is very true to rap in 1995, it is the free-style rapping that is mind-blowing. The rapping feels like it is spontaneous and never feels scripted and is used very cleverly in the film.
Hanson has certainly created a great film. Because of its authenticity and portrayal of rap culture, I don't hesitate to say that it is his best film. It is a film of true grit by a director who lets his actors and film take center stage and not himself. The film is filled with an extraordinary performance by Eminem who goes beyond playing himself and gives a truly great performance that sees him show a vulnerable and truly gritty side, not the show he puts on at awards shows and at press conferences. There is much more to his role than an autobiographical portrayal and he delivers extraordinarily. His performance is at the core of what will surely end up being one of the best films of 2002.