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Viva Detroit!

Scott Cunningham

For all the parents out there who are still trying to decide whether to let their kids see 8 Mile, rapper Eminem’s first feature film, relax. It’s the modern equivalent of an Elvis movie: light romantic comedy interspersed with musical interludes. The similarities between 8 Mile and Elvis’s own semi-autobiographical film, Loving You (1957) are multiple, just as the two stars themselves are twins from different eras.Both grew up in broken homes in the midst of poverty, very in touch with the black culture surrounding them, and both adapted that culture into their own unique musical styling to become more famous than all of their influences put together. Physically speaking, they have similar eyes: blue, wide, and portraying an innocence that is absent in the music.Eminem has turned the controversy surrounding his music into his primary marketing point, a plot-line which is at the center of Loving You. Elvis, as the blue-collar kid Deke Rivers, is discovered by publicist Glenda Markle (Lizabeth Scott), who conjures up all manner of stunts to emphasize Deke’s sexual prowess and thereby sell his music. Various characters question the morality of what’s she’s doing, and her response is blunt.”Sex is a healthy American commodity,” she says.Eminem understands this better than anyone, and has followed a similar storyline as Elvis in communicating his sex appeal. People who grew up in the hip hop generation may think that “street credibility” — proving that you can survive and understand the toughest neighborhoods — was born in the ’80s, but an essential element of the persona of Elvis is that he crossed economic and racial lines. Early on in Loving You, there is a cut from Deke, wearing his worker blue denim, performing for the first time in public to a black kid in the audience smiling and dancing. The message is clear.The entire audience at The Shelter, the hip hop club where Eminem’s alter-ego, Bunny Rabbit, battles other local emcees, is black. His opponents are black, and his friends are black. The reason this works is that in real life Eminem is fully accepted and respected in the African-American community, in large part because “blackness” has changed from being a racial signifier to a class-signifier. A white friend of mine was teaching in a New York City public school last year, and one day at lunch, some of the kids asked him where he lived. He told them the address, in a tough Queens neighborhood.’See, I told you he was black!” one said to the other.Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) is very conscious of this line, symbolized in the title of his film, 8 Mile, a road in Detroit that separates the black neighborhoods from the white ones. In one scene within Rabbit’s trailer, his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger) is watching a scene from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, a film that came out two years after Loving You and deals very directly with the question of racial divisions in America. The scene that is playing depicts young Sarah Jane (Karen Dicker), an 8-year-old black girl who is light-skinned enough to pass for white, being visited at her school by her black mother (Juanita Moore). Ashamed for her racial identity, Sarah Jane runs out of the school.The character is an obvious parallel to Eminem, a white kid who is “black” enough to cross the literal and symbolic divider of 8 Mile Road. It’s this ability to breech boundaries that allows his talent to be heard, just as it was for Elvis. Without that edge, Elvis is just Buck Owens and Eminem is another Vanilla Ice, at least in image. The other separating factor is raw talent.The best parts of 8 Mile are undoubtedly the musical interludes. When Loving You was being screened in 1957, girls were screaming so much no one could hear the lyrics of the songs. In the theaters showing 8 Mile, it’s been the exact opposite. The audience quiets down when Rabbit takes the microphone or steps into the middle of the cipher because people want to hear exactly what’s he’s saying, and not just for the charisma of the man. His major validating factor, beyond the “white kid from a black neighborhood” persona, is “honesty.”I put the word in quotes because it could just be part of his schtick, but Eminem, the rap star (not to be confused with Marshall Mathers), is bluntly honest. It may seem odd that someone with three different stage names could become the mouthpiece for “telling it straight,” but Eminem is never one to shy away from a topic, especially when it concerns himself. When he speaks, people listen because he’s convinced the music-buying public that what he has to say is important.Elvis has a similar identity problem in Loving You. “Deke Rivers” turns out to be a stage name, just like Eminem. Elvis’ character’s real name is Jimmy Tompkins, a runaway from a group home. Like Rabbit, his loneliness is his central attribute, but it’s sold differently. For Deke, his loneliness is a disease he cures by the end of the film, when he finds two friends and a girlfriend. But for Eminem, his man-against-the-world attitude is revealed as his strength. The final shot has him walking off into the center of Detroit alone, his garbage bag of clothes slung over his back like an urban hobo.The message of Loving You is that Elvis is the boy you want to take home to the farm with you, whereas 8 Mile’s is something along the After School Special lines of “be true to yourself.” But the purpose of both films is the same: to sell a pop star.Rather than jumping from music videos to Charlie’s Angels flicks, Hanson is a throw-back director who rose slowly through the ranks the old-fashioned way, and as a lover of old films, he guides 8 Mile through a format that was undoubtedly stolen from classics like Loving You. The music is often integrated into the plot-line to highlight the performer’s abilities: Eminem freestyles in a parking lot in the same way Elvis serenades a young crowd in a restaurant. Both scenes, incidentally, end in a fist-fight.There’s a mild Oscar buzz surrounding 8 Mile, but it’s unfounded. If you go for anything other than a taste of Eminem, you’ll be disappointed. At the same time, if you don’t like him or know nothing about him, you’ll leave with a new-found respect for his charisma and talent, which is exactly the point Hanson, Eminem, and all of his public relations people are driving home.


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