Crossing the shady borders

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Fri Nov 22 09:50:12 MST 2002

Crossing the shady borders
By Brian Boyd

  The Eminem who makes his film debut in Eight Mile might be a

sanitised guardian of moral rectitude but the hip-hop star insists his debut

feature keeps it real about where he came from, writes Brian Boyd

Who's afraid of Eminem? Certainly not the $35 million worth of middle
Americans who sat in the dark with him for two hours on the opening weekend
of his debut feature, Eight Mile - a figure which recouped the film's entire
costs in less than 48 hours. With the film and its accompanying soundtrack
in with a bullet at the number one spots in both the film and music charts,
it's a sweet victory for the controversial rapper, who was once memorably
dubbed by George W. Bush "the most dangerous threat to American children
since polio". The only threat being talked about now though is that to
Marshall Mather's creativity - will Slim Shady going to Hollywood have the
same negative artistic impact as Elvis joining the army.

A semi-autobiographical film about his trailer trash upbringing in Detroit,
Eight Mile sees our hero living the American dream, updating the Rocky
narrative for the hip-hop community and behaving with all the ideological

circumspection that is required of US screen idols. Watch as Eminem's
character finds that "hard work" will necessarily "get him somewhere", see
how living on welfare is viewed as being morally reprehensible and how those
who work in minimum wage jobs are castigated as "losers". It's a film that
will play well in the Oval Office.

But although Eminem's character is heroically displayed as honest,
intelligent, a hard worker, a doting family member and even (in one scene)
as standing up for a gay colleague who is being taunted, this is no star
vehicle. Director Curtis Hanson came to the project with plenty of form
(Wonder Boys, LA Confidential) and has created a vivid and authentic
time-piece. With Eminem diligently subdued throughout, allowing a tarty Kim
Basinger (as his mother) to steal the show, what impresses here most is how
Hanson and cast have managed to present the hip-hop lifestyle (frequently
misunderstood) and display its musical methodology to a mainstream cinema

Once you get over the none-too-buried Saturday Night Fever/Rocky
none-too-buried sub-text, you realise the film's strength is how it is
bringing marginalised and impoverished inner-city American life to the
multiplexes (MC Ken Loach anybody?).

The film's title refers to the real eight-mile boundary in Detroit which
separates the black inner city from the white suburbs. Eminem plays Jimmy
Smith, known to his friends as Rabbit, a young man looking for something
better than his factory job and his life with his wreck of a mother in a
trailer home.

Convinced his skills as a rapper offer him his "only shot", he joins up with
a crew of DJs and MCs. The only white rapper in the area, he gets taunted as
"Elvis" and "Vanilla Ice" and has to prove himself by "battling" - a rap
gladiatorial "fight" where two people take to the stage and take turns to
insult each other through "urban poetry" to the delight of the baying crowd.
The overall winner of these "battles" will walk off into the sunset with a
record deal. "Some people who saw my music videos approached me to act in
films," says Eminem of how he got involved with the film, "but I always held
back - because, you know, I'm not an actor - until Eight Mile came along and
that was because it really, authentically showed what the hip-hop scene was
like where I'm from in Detroit four or five years ago, which also was the
time when I was coming up." To "keep it real", he brought the producer and
director around to the places where he began his rapping career.

"Most every night there was a 'battle' on somewhere, on a Friday it would be
in a place called The Shelter, then on Monday in a place called C Note it
was interesting because what we were doing back then was very different to
the New York and Los Angeles hip-hop scenes, we were like a mix of both, but
a different world at the same time. So I thought that story would be
interesting to tell".

The freestyling rap battles between the participants - the aim being to
humorously humiliate your opponent by extemporising - form the centrepiece
of the film's action. "Battling is so intense," he says, "I remember when I
was doing it, it was like all these underground MCs trying to get a rep
(reputation) from battling really well and that's how you got noticed and
got a record deal, because you were skilful with words and rhymes. Whenever
I lost a battle, it was like my world had ended - it's very difficult to
explain to people not form the hip-hop world what it means - it's like the
first time that Muhammad Ali got knocked out or something and the film shows
this world that no one outside hip-hop circles really knows about.

"Anything can be used against you in the battles, they really go into your
private life. If you're from a trailer park, they'll use that, if you're
broke or if you're dumb, they'll use that, if you've dropped out of school -
or even if you haven't dropped out of school - they'll use that, and my
character gets the 'white' thing thrown at him. But that's what it was like
in that Eight Mile area, it was a colour line between blacks and whites and
it was nothing to do with income, you could both be equally poor."

Tipped for all sorts of awards glories, Eminem got so engrossed in his
character that he even recorded the soundtrack album as Jimmy Smith. "I was
scribbling away with a pen all the time, the only time I put it down was
when they called "action", I was writing so much lyrics and new stuff
because the film took me back to a time and a place, back to a time before I
was Eminem, before I was anybody, and that strips you of all ego or
whatever. I was writing as Jimmy, not as Eminem, not even as Marshall,
that's how seriously I took it. Then I was rapping as Jimmy and you can hear
that on the lead off single from the soundtrack, Lose Yourself.

"Throughout the film you hear Lose Yourself as a work in progress, Jimmy is
trying to make it into something, build it into a song and at the end of the
movie you finally hear the whole thing."

Also featuring the considerable talents of Jay-Z, Nas, Gang Starr and
Xzibit, the Eight Mile soundtrack outsold Nirvana's greatest hits package on
its first week of release and although the new Eminem songs here were
written for a context they reveal a more reflective, mature rapper who
seemingly has dropped grudges of old. The album also sees Eminem unveil
proteges from his new own label, Shady Records, in the promising shape of
Obie Trice and 50 Cent. Incidentally, unlike the Eminem records, there is no
"clean" edit available of the soundtrack album.

For someone who is currently on probation for an unsavoury pistol-whipping
attack, has been sued both by his mother and his ex-wife for "emotional
distress", not to mention attracting opprobrium from gay rights groups,
women's groups and George W. himself and being held personally responsible
by some fundamentalist Christian groups for the Columbine massacre, he makes
for a most unlikely celluloid hero.

Of future acting roles, he says "I'm not interested, but if the right
opportunity comes along ", but you sense that as a clever cultural
provocateur he's exploring the boundaries (something he's adept at) of how,
and why, cross-over mainstream appeal runs contrary to the nature of hip-hop
culture - wherein something is appreciated more if it has the ability to
upset parents/moral guardians.

Or maybe he just now prefers to do what he does from inside the tent.

The Eight Mile soundtrack is out now on Shady Records. The film opens in
Ireland in January

© The Irish Times

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