Missed by 8 miles

After reading Ken Hanke’s review [Xpress Nov. 13] of the new Eminem movie 8 Mile, I went to go see it for myself. Now I feel compelled to respond to Hanke’s indefensibly bad review, which missed the finer points of the movie in so many ways that, in reading over the review again, I am actually embarrassed for him.

While the film is not without its flaws, it is certainly the smartest, most even-handed treatment of hip-hop culture to come along in quite a while. It doesn’t flinch away from the difficult attitudes towards homophobia, violence and misogyny that are latent in the rhymes of rap artists who emerge from poverty-stricken ghettoes in order to testify to their [world’s] harsh realities. And the rhymes are all over 8 Mile’s landscape — they are the very texture of the film. The soundtrack alone forms a kind of narrative of the evolution of rap music, and strategically employs tracks throughout the film that cleverly comment on the action within [it], and in doing so, includes Eminem the rapper (not the actor) in the lineage of great MCs.

Throughout the movie, we hear at key points [such] canonical rap artists as Notorious B.I.G., Rakim, Nas, Jay-Z, Gang Starr and many others. There are also several scenes in which Rabbit (Eminem’s character in the film) and his crew sound off on some of the ongoing debates in the hip-hop world: They discuss the East-West rivalry, Tupac’s legacy as a rapper and the legitimacy of the original white rappers, the Beastie Boys. (In Rabbit’s crew, as in the rap world, opinions about the Beasties’ rep are divided.) What makes these scenes so entertaining for viewers who love hip hop is that the exchanges are common in real life, both among artists and fans of the music, and they echo the chronic-tinged debates you might hear on an urban street corner, or in a suburban rec room, any day of the year.

I bring [this] up because [8 Mile] is, after all, a movie about rap and authenticity, and the rhymes that Rabbit unleashes at key moments in the film are as authentic and impressive as anything on Eminem’s records. The audience I saw [the movie] with sensed this as well. And when Rabbit takes the stage at the film’s climax to do rhetorical combat with rival MCs, the skeptical, all-black crowd [in the film] is won over just as Eminem, the real-life rapper, had to win respect among his peers before he ever got famous by showing that, despite his race and unusual rap style, he’s the real thing.

Director Curtis Hanson allows the film’s narrative arc to unfold with patience and even subtlety, creating scenes in which Eminem’s natural talents as a comic, mimic and wordsmith are allowed to blossom. As in Hanson’s masterful L.A. Confidential and the underappreciated Wonder Boys, the director has given us another deceptively complex story of Young Turks coming up against the entrenched authority of the Old Guard, and who, in their own struggle for legitimacy and respect, redeem their predecessors. If you want to go looking for structural templates, try “Henry IV, Part I,” as David Denby suggested in his New Yorker review [of the film], or even [certain works by myth historian] Joseph Campbell.

Hanke’s disclaimer that a 48-year-old man is not the movie’s target audience is not as telling as the fact that he resorted to straw-polling 18-to-28-year-old viewers in order to help him find the proper context for judging the film. While the movie clearly speaks to an audience at least one generation removed from Hanke’s frame of reference, I can’t help but wonder what kind of value can be placed on the opinions of younger viewers who pay to see movies like Jason X and Reign of Fire in the theater.

Hanke claims the movie is morally compromised in aiming for a demographic that includes underage viewers. While it seems obvious that Hanson and producer Brian Grazer aimed for a large, mixed-race target audience, I’m guessing that Hanke and his young cohorts are not among them; so my question is: How ethical is it to dispatch an aging movie reviewer who knows nothing about rap music to review a movie about rap? You can answer that for yourself; I suspect that the reason Hanke anticipated readers “flooding me with letters about being an out-of-step curmudgeon” is because he knows, as is now obvious to all of us, that this is precisely the case.

Hanke claims that if all the slang and obscenities were removed from the film, you’d have a silent movie. One can almost imagine him tuning out all of the intoxicating rapping and street-slang poetry that flows directly from the real vernacular of urban slums and gives the film its life, as he patiently waits for something to happen. He doesn’t see the forest through the trees. The language is lyrical, and has an energy and a transformative power of its own, but only if you have the ears to hear it; it’s what this film is all about. Not surprisingly, Hanke made no mention whatsoever of the many finely rendered rap sequences throughout the film, or how the attitudes reflect a host of perspectives on various issues in contemporary hip-hop culture, because he simply wasn’t hearing it.

Instead, Hanke contents himself with the illusion that Eminem is merely annexing other people’s voices and cultures, even comparing the rapper to Vanilla Ice — a comparison so laughably off-target that I wonder if Hanke even heard Rabbit, in the climactic scene of oral combat, anticipating the same lame comparison and flipping it back on his opponent before the other rapper even had a chance to say it. I won’t bother with all the reasons why Eminem is a real rapper and Vanilla Ice was a media-constructed pretender, because it’s all explained in great depth and detail in a movie that just came out called 8 Mile.

Hanke probably had to restrain himself from comparing this film to Pooty Tang, as he does with nearly autistic compulsiveness whenever he sees a movie he doesn’t like. So I’ll go ahead and say it: His sadly uninformed and ultimately myopic response was the Pooty Tang of movie reviews. And though Hanke gave 8 Mile his lowest rating, a pictorial icon of an empty theater seat, it is perhaps worth noting that the viewer that has gotten up and left is an old, balding white man.

[Caleb Whitaker, a white guy who grew up on a farm in Fairview, teaches creative writing at Warren Wilson College.]

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