The Body and Soul of Eminem
Across the Borderline
by DAVE MARSH
While I watched Eminem’s 8 Mile, the film that replayed itself in parallel wasn’t an Elvis film or Purple Rain, which I’d been told to watch out for, but Body and Soul, Robert Rossen’s 1948 boxing movie in which John Garfield struggles to survive a world of fixed fights. It’s not the plot that struck me as similar-the bouts in 8 Mile are fixed only by the script–it’s the way Eminem looks and acts.
Most of Eminem’s acting-that is, all the numerous emotional contradictions his character discovers in himself–comes out of his Pinocchio eyes and his small lithe body. In an early, defining scene, he takes a lonely late night city bus ride. He sprawls his small lean body in its baggy sweats across the back seat, and stares out at the barren streets of metropolitan Detroit with an intensity that suggests determination not to beat the bleakness but simply to fight it, without really caring who wins.
Director Curtis Hansen places Eminem in a world so cold and dirty you can practically smell its squalor. The Detroit streets seem as devoid of people as they are full of derelict buildings. Ninety percent of the people we see are black, which must be a first for a film with a white star. The exceptions are Eminem’s (Rabbit’s) girlfriends, who are both white-of course, if they had been black, that would have had to be the subject of the film.
The true subject here is cultural miscegenation, a more important first. Elvis made 40 films without ever getting to race matters; Purple Rain took the position that Prince transcended race (both true and impossible). 8 Mile takes race as an inescapable social and musical constant.
The film music adds up to very little (the soundtrack sounds way better), largely because the MC battle that’s the film’s crucible gives each competitor only 45 seconds to perform. The best musical moment comes when Eminem and his best friend, Future (Mekhi Phifer), who is black, are outside working on Eminem’s junker. In his mother’s trailer, her deadbeat boyfriend plays Lynyrd Skynyrd. In their bemusement at this cracker cliché, they begin freestyling to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama” an hilarious commentary on how and why Eminem’s impoverished trailer trash life sucks. Even more than the final scene when Eminem wins over a black club by ‘fessing up to his honky roots, the scene drives home that the only thing that might trump race solidarity is class solidarity.
Eminem says the movie’s message is that “no matter whether you come from the North side or the South side [of 8 Mile Road], you can break outta that,” if “your mentality is right and your drive is right.” But he’s wrong. The film actually shows that in a world where everyone is trapped, including prep school kids, the only way out involves using your individual drive and vision to tell the painful truth-it’s not identity of any kind that can’t be faked but *emotional* authenticity.
So Eminem’s victory comes not when he moons his white ass at a lesser opponent but when he tells the whole truth about his trailer trash background. The decisive factor involves championing that experience as more authentic than his black opponent’s roots in prep school.
So at the end of the film when Eminem says he needs to work by himself for a while, he walks off not into a sunset but back to the bus stop, back to his factory job, which means, to caring for his family, to accepting responsibility, to struggling as hard he knows how to live in a more decent world. Is that what an artist would or should do?