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When you go into the cinema to see 8 Mile, you’ll enter a world you’ve probably never been in before - the world of 8 Mile… warns Eleanor Singer.

It’s a film about Detroit, about becoming yourself and breaking free, about boundaries… and about music. “Just as you don’t have to appreciate boxing to like Rocky or Raging Bull,” says Oscar-winning director Curtis Hanson, “you don’t have to be a hip hop fan to appreciate 8 Mile. It’s about human endurance, tenacity, getting into this world and surviving it.”

"redefining the boundaries between rap and mainstream pop"

Hanson obviously feels the need for such an explanation because 8 Mile, as half-a-dozen people on the planet may not yet be aware, marks the acting debut of Eminem, the freestyler who has become one of the world’s most successful recording artists over the past two or three years, redefining the boundaries between rap and mainstream pop in the process.

But that isn’t really the kind of boundary that 8 Mile is about: it’s first and foremost about 8 Mile Road, which marks the perimeter of the city of Detroit. 8 Mile has also become the dividing line between the city’s black and white communities and marks the frontier Eminem’s character, Jimmy Smith Jr, will have to cross if he is to escape everything that is holding him back.

Detroit is America’s working-class city par excellence. As such, it has given birth to three generations of great music: the Motown sound of the sixties; the blue-collar rock of Bob Seger and others in the seventies and early eighties; and the hip hop revolution of the past half-decade.

“In 8 Mile,” says Hanson, “we are exposed to a world little known or visited in film or in mainstream news coverage: impoverished America struggling to make it legitimately in the recesses of the inner city. The people in Detroit know 8 Mile as the city limit, a border, a boundary. But, for the character of Jimmy, 8 Mile is the psychological dividing line that separates him from where he wants to be and who he wants to be. If you think about it, we all have our own 8 Mile.”

Adds Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Amores perros: “Curtis said that he wanted 8 Mile to look and feel ‘like a weed emerging from the sidewalk’. I really love that image.”

At the heart of Jimmy’s determination to escape is the power his words and music give him - not the power of poetry but power as in force: the force that weapons give. Detroit’s freestyle clubs are at once a haven for lovers of hip hop and battlegrounds on which rappers try to outdo and wound one another with words and rhymes. To call it a music-form based on aggression would be an understatement.

"it’s our world"

“I remember, if I lost a battle, it would be like my entire world was crumbling,” says Eminem. “A lot of people would say, ‘What’s the big deal? Get over it! You lost, try again.’ But I would feel like my life was over. It’s competition. It’s like a sport that is somebody’s whole life. It may look silly to a lot of people, but to a lot of us, it’s our world.” 

Published January 16, 2003

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