In the early 2000s, Eminem was the most divisive public figure in America. Hip-hop heads saw him as an innovative MC whose squaking voice and staccato flow set him apart from other white rappers, and 15-year-old boys saw him as someone who told truths they would never say out loud. Women, queer people, music critics, moms, and pretty much everyone else saw him as Public Enemy Number One, flinching at the comedic depictions of domestic violence and homophobia in his lyrics.
By 2002, though, Eminem had broken through to an unexpectedly wide audience; Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney praised him, saying the rapper had “sent a voltage around his generation… not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.” His talent was undeniable, even if his subject matter made him all but unpalatable for a wider audience. With 8 Mile, director Curtis Hanson and writer Scott Silver reimagined Eminem as someone who could win over audiences that might have otherwise found him repellent. The film not only netted him a Best Original Song Oscar—the first awarded to a rap artist—but it may have also played a role in his eventual induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s the winter of 1995 in Detroit, and novice rapper Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith (Eminem) has seen some shit. He’s been fired from a job as a Little Caesar’s delivery guy, he dumped his girlfriend after she told him she was pregnant, and he’s living in a trailer with his alcoholic mother (Kim Basinger), who’s dating a guy who was a senior in high school when Jimmy was a freshman. The only thing keeping Jimmy together is his writing and his love of rap; his friends and local producer Future (Mekhi Phifer) encourage him to participate at underground rap battles, despite the fact that he becomes infamous on the battle rap scene for choking in the first round. How does B-Rabbit go from being on the ropes to laying down the knockout verbal punches?
8 Mile has some obvious parallels with Eminem’s rise to fame, but the project started out with a more general focus. “I was looking to make a movie about hip-hop that, like Saturday Night Fever did, really puts you in that world,” Brian Grazer told Rolling Stone in 2002. “I randomly saw Eminem on MTV, and in the span of six or seven seconds, he goes from this icy, urban, scary glare to this fluid, self-effacing, kind of fun character. I had to meet him.” While the rapper and the film producer didn’t connect at first—“Em didn’t say a word for about twenty minutes,” Grazer said. “I was only getting the icy part. It got really uncomfortable”—Eminem was eventually able to open up, and would work with Grazer and screenwriter Scott Silver to get the film made.
The underdog storyline guided audiences into finding Eminem sympathetic, but 8 Mile wouldn’t work if the MC didn’t turn in a solid performance. To play B-Rabbit, Eminem abandons the smirky characters of his music videos for a more subtle approach. His downcast gaze and resigned facial expressions, as well as his shuffling gait in oversized pant legs and the way he balances on the balls of his feet when he’s standing still, shows us the depression and anxiety B-Rabbit is experiencing in an effective way. Hanson and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto frequently shoot Eminem in profile at the edge of the frame, allowing us to see what’s happening around him as he’s experiencing it.
Because Eminem spends much of the running time quietly taking in what’s happening around him, his participation in the closing rap battle earns its triumphant climax. Lyckety-Splyt (Gerald Strike Sanders) all but annihilates B-Rabbit before handing him the mic for his turn. He stumbles out a few syllables and seems poised to choke, but just as members of the audience start heckling him, he rolls forward, his eyes wide and his arms open. His nasally voice and percussive flow contrast with his competitor’s smoother delivery, and his clever use of multisyllabic rhyme and lopsided pronunciations give his freestyle a compelling momentum and an unexpected sense of humor. The antic punchline of his set, in which he drops trou, comes off as almost anticlimactic in the wake of his win over Lyckety-Splyt. Hanson and Prieto’s staging of the battles, which start in two-shots at eye level and creep into low-angled, handheld closeups of Eminem, add to the intensity of his performance and the rush of triumph in the film’s final scenes.
8 Mile was a massive commercial success on its release. Its empathetic depiction of Eminem not only resonated with his fanbase but also won him fans among audiences who may have condemned him in previous years. While the film reshaped the Rocky story for Gen-X audiences (down to the last shot, in which B-Rabbit triumphantly raises his fist as he walks down an empty street), its easy-to-digest narrative predicted the kinds of films Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hopefuls would later make as highlight reels for consideration in their nominations, and its long life on basic cable may have played as much of a role in Eminem’s induction as did his obvious talent and influence.
In the years since the release of 8 Mile, Eminem has maintained a strong fanbase and occasionally tried some unexpected approaches to hip hop (like his collaboration with Bette Midler and songs like “Alfred’s Theme”, in which he raps over Gounoud’s “Funeral March for a Marionette”), but his Angry Young Man persona has occasionally calcified into an Old Man Yells at Cloud perspective. 8 Mile reminds us of the thrilling artist Eminem was at his peak, and it shows us the artist he might one day become.