This is the final part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.
‘Lose Yourself’ is one of the best songs of Eminem’s career. It’s an incredible showcase for his virtuosic rhyming and his mesmerising early-2000s flow, but there’s also the urgent intensity of his delivery, the tense, relentless guitar lick, the instantly recognisable piano intro and how the piano gets layered into the rest of the song. “Mom’s spaghetti” has been memed into oblivion, but the whole song is full of rich, striking imagery of poverty and desperation, from the evocative and metaphorical – “I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot” – to the horrifically mundane: “These goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” It’s one of the only “inspirational” songs that it’s possible to imagine actually inspiring someone. It’s full of an aggressive kind of hope: a hope born of hopelessness, a hope that you cling to because otherwise you’ll die. I knew every word many years before I would listen to any of Eminem’s albums.
‘Lose Yourself’ has largely eclipsed the film it was written for in the cultural consciousness: 8 Mile is remembered as the film that ‘Lose Yourself’ is from, not the other way around. Like Purple Rain, 8 Mile is still well-remembered and -regarded, but more like an appendage to its star’s music career than a film in its own right.
But 8 Mile is a great film: a working-class sports drama in the tradition of Rocky, with rap battles in place of boxing matches. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., nicknamed Rabbit, an aspiring rapper in mid-1990s Detroit. It’s an extraordinary performance, underrated on the assumption that he’s just playing himself. Many people who come to acting from another kind of performance just sort of coast on charisma and presence – The Rock has made a career out of it – but Eminem never coasts. He’s electric. He has extraordinarily expressive eyes: as Ryan Gibney writes for Sight and Sound, he conveys “vulnerability with a simple well-timed blink or wince.”
There’s a long tradition of musicians playing fictionalised versions of themselves in movies. It’s the ultimate form of cross-promotion: music fans will go see the film, and the film will attract new fans to the music. That was the basic premise of The Monkees. Occasionally these films are great – okay, mostly just A Hard Day’s Night – but more often, they’re slapdash affairs thrown together to make a quick buck off their stars’ popularity. In 2002, Eminem was the most famous person on earth, and so of course the bigwigs at Universal would want to capitalise on that. It’s hard to not be cynical, especially when slotting Eminem into an inspirational drama seems on its face like the definition of square peg and round hole. (Reportedly, screenwriter Scott Silver originally pitched “something that reflected [the] outrageous humor and cartoonish violence of his records” and the studio “went ‘Uh, no.’”)
Many of the contemporary reviews of 8 Mile bring that scepticism. They speculate that the film’s purpose is a branding exercise – to present Eminem as kinder and gentler than his music or arrest record would have you believe – or to set Eminem up to transition into acting. Nearly twenty years later, the latter was just incorrect (outside of a handful of cameo roles, he hasn’t acted since), but the former is at least worth considering.
It is easy to watch 8 Mile as being designed, at least in part, to broaden Eminem’s commercial appeal by softening his edges. There are Eminem songs I wouldn’t listen to on public transport in case someone overheard them through my headphones, yet I’d happily recommend 8 Mile to just about anybody’s mother. His character is called Rabbit, literally making him something cuddly. Eminem lost weight for the role – accentuating his cleft chin – and it makes him look more vulnerable, almost delicate. In one scene, Rabbit criticises another rapper, played by Xzibit, for his homophobic punchlines. “Eminem really has cleaned up his act; the provocative gay-baiting has gone,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in his review for The Guardian, sarcastically calling it “Quite a turnaround.” The cynical view is that it’s a rebranding after Eminem was accused of homophobia; the idealistic view is that it’s meant as a sincere repentance for past sins. I don’t find either view terribly convincing, because they both seem to rely on only half-watching the film: surely it matters that Rabbit is also homophobic to rebut Xzibit, rapping, “Paul’s gay, you’re a f*ggot.” It requires understanding the scene purely through how it comports with Eminem, the person and the brand, rather than taking the film as a piece of art on its own terms.
8 Mile both is and isn’t about Eminem. On ‘Lose Yourself’, he both distinguishes himself from Rabbit and slides between the two. Where the other tracks he wrote for the soundtrack – ‘8 Mile’ and ‘Run Rabbit Run’ – are from Rabbit’s perspective, ‘Lose Yourself’ describes the events of the film in the third person:
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
“The first verse is all about Jimmy Smith Jr. It’s me talking about Jimmy Smith Jr.—like, I’m not saying my sweater, I’m saying his,” Eminem says, “I’m trying to show you what his life is about.” But the second verse is more ambiguous – it’s in the third person but seems to be describing Eminem’s later life, post-success:
He’s known as the globetrotter, lonely roads
God only knows, he’s grown farther from home, he’s no father
He goes home and barely knows his own daughter
And the final verse describes Eminem’s earlier, related real-life struggles in the first person:
All the pain inside amplified by the
Fact that I can’t get by with my nine-to-
Five and I can’t provide the right type of life for my family
‘Cause man, these goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers
And there’s no movie, there’s no Mekhi Phifer, this is my life
Eminem has always created different personas, synthesising fiction and autobiography to create new selves. “No performer since David Bowie in the 1970s has better exploited the actorly impulses at the heart of pop music,” Gibney writes, “Shuffling a deck of alter egos… he plays out in musical form audacious multi-character dramas.” There’s more distance between Eminem and Rabbit than there is between him and his rap personas – Eminem, after all, didn’t write or direct 8 Mile – yet hardly an infinite distance. Rabbit isn’t him, but enough autobiographical elements are incorporated that it would be easy to tell that Rabbit was based on Eminem even if he was played by someone else. This is a version of a story that Eminem has always told and had told about him.
So much of Eminem’s early work is a self-conscious exercise in myth-making, and the best of his later work reflects on and interrogates his own mythos. 8 Mile mirrors and even creates a part of that mythos – the angry white boy from the trailer park, battle-rapping in front of hostile crowds – and yet also stands apart from it. Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.
We first see Rabbit in a cracked mirror in the bathroom of The Shelter, the hip hop club where his friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) hosts the rap battles. He’s miming to Mobb Deep’s ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’ to psych himself up for the upcoming rap battle. He’s “hooded in about five different ways at once: There’s a Nike knit cap on his head and, above that, the top of a maroon sweatshirt. His eyelids are partly lowered, his ears are covered with headphones, his body is sheathed in loose-fitting sweats,” David Denby writes, “You can’t see much of him, and what’s visible is guarded and hostile—his upper lip has a mean double curl, a natural snarl.” Someone keeps knocking at the door to get him to hurry up; Rabbit shouts to give him a minute. He pulls his headphones off and ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’ cuts out, replaced by the music playing distantly in the Shelter. Then he runs to the toilet and pukes his guts out.
When Rabbit goes back into the club proper, he’s briefly hassled by the bouncer – played by Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton! – who doesn’t think he should be backstage, but Future vouches for him. He got vomit on his hoodie, so he goes outside to change: his clothes are in a black bin bag, stashed behind a dumpster in the alleyway. His friends – Sol (Omar Benson Miller), DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson) and Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones) – are initially jovial, excited for the rap battle, but they quieten when they see Rabbit’s bin bag full of clothes. There’s an awkward pause, and Rabbit explains that he just broke up with his girlfriend, Janeane.
He’s homeless, essentially. He says he left Janeane the car – she says she’s pregnant, but Future and Sol exchange sceptical glances – and it’s pretty clear that he would otherwise be living out of it.
“I’m gonna need a place to crash,” Rabbit says, and everyone laughs when Cheddar Bob asks if he’s going to “stay at [his] mom’s”. “Yo, can I get some fucking privacy here, man?” Rabbit snaps. He pulls on a clean jumper – even after discarding the hoodie, he seems to be wearing half a dozen layers – and tells Future that if something’s going to happen for him with rap, “it needs to happen now.”
But when it comes time for the rap battle, he chokes. He can’t get a word out, and he’s jeered off stage.
Everyone laughed when Cheddar Bob asked if Rabbit was going to stay at his mom’s, but of course he ends up staying at his mom’s. Back to the trailer park. It’s not like he has anywhere else to go. “Just for a couple of weeks,” he tells her, “Until I save up enough to get my own place.”
Kim Basinger is great as Rabbit’s mother, Stephanie, striking just the right mixture of maternal kindliness, exasperation, and thoughtless cruelty. She drinks too much, and seems more concerned with her shitty boyfriend, Greg (Michael Shannon), than with Rabbit or his little sister, Lily, but is prone to occasional fits of affection. In a perfect encapsulation, she gives Rabbit her car as an early birthday present and it doesn’t run.
8 Mile does as good a job as anything I’ve seen of capturing how it feels to move back home as an adult. There’s a feeling of failure, of sliding backwards, to living with your parents significantly into adulthood, especially after a period of independence. When I moved back home, although I was extremely grateful to have my parents’ support, I couldn’t help but get sucked into a cycle of frustration, disappointment and despair. You have failed at the bare minimum expectation for being an adult, consigned yourself to an infantalisation from which you cannot escape. (Young people who move back home are more likely to experience depression.) And even though more young adults are living with their parents than ever, locked out of the private rental sector and the property market by costs way out of step with wages, adults who live at home are still a punchline. “You live in your mom’s basement” is a way to dismiss someone entirely out of hand. The shame Rabbit feels radiates off the screen – in the sullen intensity of his stare, in his guarded vulnerability – compounded a dozen times over by the particular home he’s moved back to: he’s “trailer trash”. He sharply warns people not to tell anyone that he’s living here.
8 Mile’s camera lingers on derelict buildings – as Rabbit and his friends drive around shooting at stuff with a paintball gun, or the tracking shots out of the bus window on Rabbit’s way to work, evoking the ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ montage of derelict and boarded-up buildings in Flint, Michigan from Roger & Me. Even The Shelter is an abandoned building: a former church, now, as director Curtis Hanson once said, “a different kind of church”. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto works from a palette of what Gibney calls “industrial and jaundiced colours”: “factory greys, cadaver blues, bile yellows”. The overall effect evokes a kind of post-industrial wasteland, without ever sacrificing the film’s deep empathy for Detroit and its people. Detroit, Hanson said, is “like a flower struggling through a crack in the cement.”
There’s a scene at a house party where DJ Iz – the most politically conscious member of Rabbit’s crew – talks about an abandoned house where a young girl was raped: it’s the definition of an “attractive nuisance”, he says, and if it was on the other side of 8 Mile Road – the dividing line between Detroit’s black inner city and white suburbs – it would have long since been demolished. So they decide to take matters into their own hands and burn the abandoned house down. It’s a political action, but it’s mostly just a lark: they sing “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” while it goes up in flames. Rabbit watches with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a sexy and aloof aspiring model who’s desperate to get out of Detroit.
“You know, when I was little, I used to want to live in a house like this. You know, how it used to be,” Rabbit says. The “when I was little” and the “used to want” break my heart. It’s hard to know if Rabbit is pretending to have let go of that want – protecting himself from judgement – or if his dreams have gotten that much smaller. Too small to imagine a house to live in even as he lives in a city where houses are left abandoned.
He asks Alex if she lives with her family. “I got out of there as quick as I could. Left home when I was seventeen,” she answers. “What about you?”
Rabbit pauses for a beat, not breaking eye contact. “Sorta the same.”
Plenty of critics noted Rocky’s influence on 8 Mile – it’s hard not to – but in a way that misremembers Rocky: that boils it down to the triumphant happy ending. For Peter Travers, in an otherwise positive review, “the Rocky stuff” softens 8 Mile’s edges. But Rocky is bleak – its happy ending is only so triumphant because of the bleakness that surrounds it. Rocky lives in a small apartment with an overhead train line, boxing in small gyms and working as a heavy for a loan shark. He’s not past his prime; he had no prime. There’s only one real bright spot in his life: Adrian, the shy girl from the pet shop where he buys food for his turtles. It’s a film about “working-class lives with small horizons, harsh words and dead-end jobs at the meatpacking factory.” The heavyweight champion wants to fight a local Philadelphia boxer – a gimmick fight for the US Bicentennial – and there’s no way on earth that Rocky could win. All he wants to do is go the distance.
When Rabbit enters the battle rap competition at the end of 8 Mile, it’s not for riches or a record deal, just respect. He spends all his spare time in training, a beat pumping from his Walkman and a dirty scrap of paper in his hand. A big part of the film is the possible opportunity for studio time to record his demo – Wink (Eugene Byrd) keeps promising to hook him up with a promo guy – because rap represents Rabbit’s only means of escape. Alex says that he’s going to get a record deal soon whenever she flirts with him, and even right after sex, as if her attraction to him is inseparable not just from his rap skill, but his ability to monetise it. But there’s something much more primal to Rabbit’s rapping, something even more urgent than escape. And when Wink’s promises fall away, it’s all that’s left. “Like the fighting in Rocky and the dancing in Saturday Night Fever, the rap songs in 8 Mile possess a redemptive power,” Denby notes, “They release intolerable feelings of disgust, the fear of remaining a loser forever.” Like Rocky, Rabbit just wants to go the distance.
The Rocky formula has been applied again and again, basically launching the genre of “sports movie”. But the formula is usually Rocky as it has been assimilated into the cultural consciousness – a hazy memory of a highlight reel and a happy ending, blurry from forty years and half a dozen sequels – not the film itself. 8 Mile feels like it goes back to the source. It puts the bleakness of the urban decay and an unblinking focus on working-class existence back into the story.
8 Mile also mirrors Rocky’s portrayal of race relations, but with a self-awareness that Rocky lacks. In Rocky, the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, is black – a barely concealed Muhammad Ali analogue – while Rocky, our plucky underdog hero, is white. Apollo is arrogant and complacent; Rocky is so hardworking that the training montage had to be invented just to contain him. It’s not hard to see how the film would be thrilling to a resentful white audience: getting to see a white boxer humble the black champion. “For the black man to come out superior,” Ali told Roger Ebert, “would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
I genuinely think this racial dynamic is largely an unfortunate accident: Apollo Creed is black because the real-life heavyweight champion was black; Rocky is white because Sylvester Stallone wrote the part for himself. Rocky almost has a moment of self-reflexivity about it in a scene where a bartender complains about Creed, calling him a “jig clown” and asking where the “real fighters” have gone. This guy’s animosity towards Creed has an obvious racial dimension. Rocky scolds him for disrespecting the champ, but doesn’t articulate the underlying racism. It’s a scene that clearly establishes Rocky’s respect for his opponent: that he’s not, consciously at least, an avatar for white resentment of black success. But during the final fight, it cuts to the bartender watching on the TV in the bar. He is, of course, rooting for Rocky.
8 Mile, too, is about a white underdog in a black-dominated arena: hip hop. But where whiteness is so often treated as neutral, as default, Rabbit’s whiteness is made hypervisible. In the opening rap battle where Rabbit chokes, his opponent’s disses focus on Rabbit being white: he compares him to Everlast, calls him a tourist, and says “they laugh ’cause you white with a mic”. Rabbit’s race is overtly made part of the story, instead of something invisible that’s assumed to be universal. At one point, Rabbit’s friends talk about who is the greatest rapper of all time – Future argues for Rakim, Sol for Biggie, Iz for Tupac – when Cheddar Bob, the only other white guy in the crew, pipes up to make the case for the Beastie Boys. (Rabbit rolls his eyes.) ‘‘Man, fuck the Beasties!” Future says, “Don’t bring the Beasties’ shit in the mix, dog!’’ Then Iz says, ‘‘It’s always easier for a white man to succeed in a black man’s medium.” The camera lingers for a moment on Rabbit’s face, giving us time to register how Iz’s words apply to Eminem.
Race is a palpable force, underpinning the whole film. Stephanie watches Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life on TV. None of the characters comment on it, but we watch a scene play out on the screen within our own screen: a black woman visits her daughter’s class at school to drop something off. Her daughter’s light skin meant she had been passing as white at school, and her mother’s visit reveals her own blackness to her teacher and classmates. It’s possibly the most painful scene in Imitation of Life, a film full of them. I think Eric King Watts’ interpretation of this interpolation of the Sirk film – that Rabbit is “passing” as black – is simplistic. There’s something much more going on there, an anxious ambivalence about race, class, and generational relations, about the nature of identity.
Where Rocky explicitly tells a story about being working-class and implicitly tells a story about race, 8 Mile makes both explicit: makes navigating the relationship between the race and class its central thematic concern.
Critics tended to be observant regarding 8 Mile’s racial politics, but at best offer only a brief, superficial nod to its class politics – acknowledging Rabbit’s poverty, mostly. But 8 Mile’s class and racial politics are inextricable. If you divorce 8 Mile’s racial politics from its class politics, or, worse, erase class from the film altogether, you will misunderstand it.
Rabbit carries around the searing humiliation of choking for the whole film, like an open wound in his chest. The glimmer of hope that Wink offers – connecting him with a promo guy, getting him studio time to record his demo – is abruptly snuffed out when he walks in on Wink having sex with Alex. Rabbit flies into a rage, beating Wink up, and later, Wink gets the Leaders of the Free World (a rival hip hop crew) to beat the shit out of him.
He shows up to the rap battle competition with a black eye. Future had signed him without his permission, and when the night of the battle comes, he’s working overtime at the factory. Alex comes by – they haven’t spoken since Rabbit walked in on her and Wink – to tell him she’s leaving for New York and she hopes she’ll see him at The Shelter later. Rabbit asks a co-worker (the gay guy he defended earlier) to cover for him for a couple of hours, and he heads off.
Rabbit draws Lyckety Splyt in the first round. He’s part of the Free World crew that beat Rabbit up. The battles are shot with handheld cameras, capturing the energy and pace of a packed-out live event. The space between the film’s audience and the rap battle’s audiences collapses, and the on-screen audience both mirror and guide our responses.
Lyckety goes first. He hits Rabbit on being a “choke artist” and on Cheddar Bob shooting himself in the leg when Rabbit’s crew fought the Free World. But he mostly raps about Rabbit being white, but with his being poor as a twist of flavour:
You ain’t Detroit, I’m the D, you’re the new kid on the block
‘Bout to get smacked back to the boondocks
Fucking Nazi, this crowd ain’t your type
Take some real advice and form a group with Vanilla Ice
And what I tell you, you better use it
This guy’s a hillbilly, this ain’t Willie Nelson music
Trailer trash, I’ll choke you to your last breath
The focus is on Rabbit’s race – he’s New Kids on the Block, he’s Vanilla Ice, he’s a Nazi – but it’s a particular form of whiteness: Rabbit is trailer trash and a hillbilly. Lyckety’s final line captures it perfectly: “You need to take your white ass back across 8 Mile to the trailer park.”
Rabbit responds with bars like “These Leaders of the Free World rookies / Lookie, how can six dicks be pussies?” and “Yeah, they call me Rabbit, this is a turtle race.” He comes to life in the performance, Eminem’s carefully crafted naturalism giving way to his superstar charisma at just the right moment. We’ve seen Rabbit rap before, but with a guardedness that finally falls away on the battle stage. He’s wearing a wool hat and a baggy white jumper, but without a hoodie and headphones, it’s still about as few layers as we’ve ever seen him wear. (He was fully clothed when he had unprotected sex with Alex.)
“So I’ma turn around with a great smile,” he raps, dropping his pants to show his ass, “And walk my white ass back across 8 Mile.” He wins.
He draws Lotto, another Free World rapper, in the second round. He opens by calling Rabbit a honkey. “You think these n***as gon’ feel the shit you say?” he raps, “I got a better chance joinin’ the KKK.” Lotto, like most of the crowd, is black, so – like Lyckety, like the rapper Rabbit choked against in his first battle – he positions Rabbit as inherently an outsider. His funniest line is “I feel bad that I gotta murder that dude from Leave It to Beaver.”
There’s a steely determination in Rabbit’s eyes when he takes the mic. His calm, reproachful delivery of his opening line – “Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver” – makes me laugh every time. He’s got a lot of punchlines at the expense of Lotto’s muscles and clothes (“Is that a tank-top or a new bra? / Look! Snoop Dogg just got a fuckin’ boob job!”), but nothing lands quite as hard as when he turns Lotto’s white jokes around:
Didn’t you listen to the last round, meathead?
Pay attention, you’re sayin’ the same shit that he said
Matter of fact, dawg, here’s a pencil
Go home, write some shit, make it suspenseful
And don’t come back until somethin’ dope hits you
Fuck it, you can take the mic home with you
Rabbit holds the mic out, as if he’s actually offering it to Lotto, but the movement is timed to the beat, like his whole body is part of the rap. He doesn’t frame the white jokes as terrible anti-white racism; they’re just uncreative and boring. He wins, and has to face Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie), the leader of the Free World, for the championship.
Future, Sol and Iz are telling Rabbit how he needs to “whoop Papa Doc’s ass” in the final round, when Cheddar Bob asks if he’s worried about what Papa Doc will say. “You know, about Wink and that Alex bitch getting it on,” he explains, “And them beating you up, and giving you a black eye and shit.” Any elation drains out of Rabbit, and you can see the gears turning in his head.
In the final round, Rabbit has taken off his hat and jumper: he’s down to a grey tank top. There’s nothing covering his short-cropped dark hair.
Papa Doc wins the coin toss, so Rabbit has to go first. The DJ spins the beat to ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’. Rabbit and Papa Doc hold each other’s gaze for a few moments, each unwavering. Then Rabbit smiles – the tiniest quirk of his lips, the glint of something in his eye – and turns to the crowd.
Everything in 8 Mile leads to this battle. It’s the culmination of Rabbit’s arc. And it’s the moment where the film’s anxiety and ambivalence about race and class is resolved. Where it takes a definitive stand.
Cheddar Bob asked if Rabbit was worried about what Papa Doc would say about him. So Rabbit disses himself before Papa Doc gets the chance. “This guy ain’t no motherfucking MC,” he raps, “I know everything he’s ’bout to say against me.”
I am white, I am a fucking bum
I do live in a trailer with my mom
My boy Future is an Uncle Tom
I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob
Who shoots himself in his leg with his own gun
I did get jumped by all six of you chumps
And Wink did fuck my girl
I’m still standing here screaming, “Fuck the Free World!”
He gives the Free World crew the finger. His delivery is aggressive and magnetic. He’s flushed, the veins in his arms and neck distended. Then he gets close to Papa Doc’s face, and raps in a sing-song voice, “But I know something about you.”
You went to Cranbrook, that’s a private school
What’s the matter, dawg? You embarrassed?
This guy’s a gangster? His real name’s Clarence
And Clarence lives at home with both parents
And Clarence’ parents have a real good marriage
“This guy don’t wanna battle, he’s shook,” he raps, referencing ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’, and the crowd shouts the next line back: “’Cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks!”
Rabbit reframes the whole battle. Lotto had said that there was no chance of the black crowd at The Shelter “feeling the shit” he says, but in the final battle, Rabbit reveals Papa Doc’s upper-class background and exposes the underlying class war. Rabbit is white, but like the crowd, he is poor; Papa Doc, although he is black, is rich. Papa Doc is the real tourist: he crosses 8 Mile Road for excitement, to play at being a gangster. Rabbit appeals to the crowd by verbally weaponizing their common class struggle. Rabbit might live in a trailer park instead of the inner city, but their lives are fundamentally similar in ways that transcend race – in ways that a private school kid’s life can never be. Yannick LeJacq is correct to say that were 8 Mile released today, “people would undoubtedly praise it as an impassioned and singularly Marxist work.”
Instead, the point was frequently missed entirely. “8 Mile could do without an unnecessary class swipe,” Elvis Mitchell concluded in The New York Times, calling Cranbrook “one of the finest private schools in the country” without a hint of self-awareness. Eric King Watts argues at length that 8 Mile troublingly positions middle- and upper-class black people as “hav[ing] lost an essential ‘black’ characteristic”, but Rabbit’s final rap never invokes the idea that Papa Doc isn’t “really” black, or that Rabbit’s working-classness makes him less white. Quite the opposite. Class and race in the US are so often treated as interchangeable – that to be black is to be working-class, and to be white is to be wealthy – that middle- and upper-class black people are frequently described as somehow “less black”. But Rabbit’s final rap rejects this equating of class and race. It creates a space for Rabbit to articulate his working-class identity, and embrace the possibility of class solidarity across racial lines.
When the beat cuts out at the end of Rabbit’s allotted time, he keeps rapping:
Fuck a beat, I’ll go a cappella
Fuck a Papa Doc, fuck a clock, fuck a trailer
Fuck everybody! Fuck y’all if you doubt me!
I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly
And fuck this battle, I don’t wanna win, I’m outtie
Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.
Rabbit spends the whole film trying to deny and cover up the markers of his “white trash” status. Wink brings Alex to his trailer, and Rabbit runs off, punches a wall in frustration. Alex follows him and asks why he ran off, and he pathetically, nonsensically repeats that he doesn’t live here, so insistent that it’s almost like he believes it. But in the final battle, he calls himself white trash in front of a packed crowd, without apology or hesitation.
Of course, lots of critics thought this was a declaration of white pride. “It’s the ultimate suburban boy’s fantasy: a crowd of cool black people cheering him on, and he even gets to look like the underdog,” according to Peter Bradshaw. It pretends that Rabbit “triumphed over race prejudice”, according to Pop Matters. Eric King Watts calls it “Rabbit’s acknowledgment and ownership of the racial injury he has endured” as well as a declaration of “his confidence in the value and authority of whiteness”.
But “white trash” is first and foremost a class slur. White trash are “poor, lazy, uneducated, violent, dirty, immoral, racist”, living “in trailer parks and ramshackle cabins in the woods.” Calling poor whites “white trash” is a way for wealthy white people to distance themselves from poor white people. It is itself part of the ideology of white supremacy – the need to modify the word “white” with “trash” signifies that, as Daniel Denvir put it, “normal whiteness is a treasure; not trash but amazing.” Many of the stereotypes about white trash mirror the racist stereotypes about black and brown people, but because white supremacist ideology has to maintain whiteness as something pure and good, it has to shunt poor whites off into a whole other category of defective, degenerate or “failed” white people.
But it also holds out the promise that they can become white, without modifiers. Poor whites, like people of colour, have been disenfranchised, experimented on, institutionalised, and forcibly sterilised. Poor whites, like people of colour, are denied their fair share by society. White supremacy and capitalism are so deeply intertwined, and the primacy of white racial identity among the white poor, over class identity, is necessary to maintain the system. It’s a strategy of divide and conquer: a wedge has to be driven between poor white people and poor people of colour to prevent them uniting against the ruling class. The term “white trash” buries inside it the whole history of how poor whites “got behind a regime that primarily enriched and empowered people who regarded them as inferior scum and celebrated their subjugation.”
When Rabbit calls himself white trash and proud, it’s a declaration of class pride. It’s a rejection of the aspiration to white-without-modifiers that forms the heart of the position of poor whites under white supremacy and capitalism. It’s an articulation of class solidarity with the working-class black audience, without seeking to erase their differences.
Papa Doc chokes. The only word he gets out is “yo”. Rabbit sat down after he threw Papa Doc the mic, like it’s over, like he really meant it when he said he didn’t care about winning. He realises a second before everyone else that Papa Doc has nothing to say, and this small, genuine look of elated shock passes over his face. When Future declares him the winner, the whole crowd erupts. “313!” they chant (the area code for Detroit), “Fuck Free World!”
It’s a cathartic moment of pure joy. And afterwards, Rabbit goes back to work. He says goodbye to his friends – who are full of talk of getting a deal and finally making it – and as he walks off, we hear the piano intro to ‘Lose Yourself’. Cut to credits.
All we know about Rabbit’s future is he’s decided to save up to pay for his own demo. It’s an explicit rejection of the power brokers. A rejection of trying to impress people with industry connections only to be strung along, when he should be focusing his energy on his art. Yet the Pop Matters review uses this as evidence that 8 Mile is “about making it, about beating back the meanies, about individual gumption”: “when Rabbit assures his mom that he’s going to ‘do it on my own,’ she nods sagely, ‘You know Rabbit, I think that’s the best way.’ Hooray team.” But this is the same conversation where Stephanie tells Rabbit that they’re not going to be evicted from their trailer after all, because she won at bingo. That’s good news, obviously, but it only underlines the precarity of their position: how they avoid homelessness this time round on pure luck, how much easier it’ll be to repeat falling behind on their rent than to repeat a cash windfall.
So many critics have written about 8 Mile through the lens of “making it” and the American Dream that it makes me wonder if there’s a whole final act that I somehow missed. Roger Ebert wrote that he “would love to see a sequel (maybe 8 ½ Mile) in which Rabbit makes millions and becomes world famous, and we learn at last if it is possible for him to be happy”, and that’s one of the more understandable takes, because at least Ebert didn’t just imagine that that was already part of the film. There’s a lot of reasons I could come up with for this tendency – watching the film excessively through the lens of Eminem’s autobiography is a big one – but I can’t shake the idea that they assume proving his skill is all it takes. Rabbit isn’t Eminem, but he can rap like Eminem, and so Eminem’s success inevitably follows.
But the world is full of Rabbits, exceptionally talented and stuck in work that does not reflect the best use of their abilities. (When Rabbit moves back home, Stephanie asks if he still works at Little Caesars. When he says that he works at New Detroit Stamping – pressing car bumpers – Greg laughs in his face: “He got fired from a pizza place!” According to Greg, only “ex-cons and welfare moms” work at that plant.) It’s always been easier to “make it” if you already have all the advantages, but the last few decades have seemed to go out of their way to force the working class out of the arts: wage stagnation and ever-elongating hours in your “day job” on one hand, and the gatekeepers’ tightening their field of vision and their coin purse on the other. It’s astonishingly difficult to win a merit race when your starting place is a hundred metres back.
Workers’ Liberty describe Rabbit as “an archetype for the collective talent and ability of the working class”. We hear snatches of the songs Eminem wrote for the film throughout – the demo version of the instrumental for ‘Lose Yourself’ while he rides the bus, or the beat and fragmented lyrics for ‘8 Mile’ while he writes and babysits his sister – which Ryan Gibney correctly describes as a projection of Rabbit’s ambition. For Gibney, this is overly reassuring: “Of course Jimmy will be fine in the end, the music tells you. He’ll be more than fine – he’ll be Eminem.” The problem with this is that Rabbit isn’t Eminem. And the film very deliberately does not end with Rabbit finding Eminem’s good fortune. Nothing in Rabbit’s material circumstances changes over the course of the film. He’s still living in a trailer with his mother – having narrowly avoided eviction – and still working the same minimum wage job. He hasn’t gotten a record deal. He’s going to try to save up enough money to pay for a demo. He doesn’t even definitively get the girl: he and Alex reconnect, but there’s no big kiss or declaration of love. She’s still getting out of Detroit. 8 Mile’s happy ending takes the shape of Rocky’s – going the distance, just to prove you can, just to stave off the intolerable fear of your own worthlessness – but makes it even smaller. Rocky might have lost, but he fought the heavyweight champion: his life is going to be changed utterly. Rabbit’s happy ending comes in the form of a local rap battle in an abandoned building.
If you watch 8 Mile exclusively through the lens of Eminem’s autobiography, you miss that it’s a film about all the people like him, in trailer parks and hip hop clubs and on factory floors, who didn’t make it. Not because they weren’t talented, but because Eminem’s success is essentially a million-to-one lucky break in a society where people born on the bottom rung are supposed to stay there. Even if Rabbit made it, the rappers in the lunch line at the auto plant won’t. Lyckety Splyt and Lotto won’t. The other guys in Rabbit’s crew won’t.
‘Lose Yourself’ is about having “one shot, one opportunity”. This is what gives its explosive urgency: this is it, and if he can’t make this work, he’ll “end up in jail or shot”. Rich people have infinite chances, because their wealth is a safety net. But poor people are lucky to get one shot. Most inspirational songs are about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but ‘Lose Yourself’ knows better. Eminem made it, and Rabbit might, too. But it’s still true that these goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.
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