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This is an essay that analyzes the film 8 Mile and how it depicts and challenges the culture of Hip-Hop.
Author: Alberto D’Onofrio
(sorry in advance for some inconsistency in the essay’s formatting in the lyric segements – WordPress is giving me some problems)
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Music is not isolated to a vinyl pressing, compact disc, or audio file. It is a versatile art form – a statement I realized while studying media, in and out of school.
Cinema is a passion of mine to study, produce and enjoy. Most of all, it is a medium that can utilize music while also define a music genre. Music is another passion of mine and I am fortunate that both mediums are unifying art-forms. For instance, some of my most favored films are illustrations of a musical time period and define its depicted music genre. They also confront and demonstrate issues around the given culture. To name a few, Almost Famous: Rock and Roll in the 1970’s, Walk the Line: Johnny Cash and Country music, A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles and the British Invasion and finally, the focus of my essay –
8 Mile: A Study of Hip-Hop Culture
Of the numerous films made about the four-decade long Hip-Hop culture, Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile featuring Eminem and his semi-autobiographical story is among the most successful. It frequently makes the list of “best hip-hop movies” (Ramirez, 1) and is an example of commercial success meeting artistic achievement. While the film grossed 240 million at the box office (Box Office Mojo), it was acclaimed by film critics and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, part of the 8 Mile’s thematic score, was rewarded an Academy Award for Best Original Song (the first Hip-Hop artist to do so). However, a “two-thumbs up” from famed critic Roger Ebert and a golden statue is not my criteria for artist achievement.
My film analysis will accompany the cultural theories of Hip-Hop by theorist Murray Forman in “The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop” and Jeffery O.G Ogbar in “Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap”. Major elements of this analysis will include the role of the MC and Race, Space and Place in Hip-Hop culture which Forman discusses and is demonstrated by director Curtis Hanson in 8 Mile. The film is set during the backdrop of underground rap battles in Detroit where MC’s use words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95). The writing, locations and performances of the battles relate to the artist’s life and surroundings, or as Forman suggests, “space and place”.
Race is also part of the narrative. In the film, main character B-Rabbit (Eminem) struggles to make an impact as a Hip-Hop artist in the Black community of Detroit. This racial element is explored throughout the film, and especially summed in a discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends: DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”.
My analysis of 8 Mile will be an example of why the film is an artistic achievement as it relates to the large culture of Hip-Hop as theorized by author Murray Forman and Jeffery O.G Ogbar. There are different approaches to writing about a film and I will use a critical essay methodology (Corrigan, 12). With this method in practice, I presume that the reader will be familiar with 8 Mile as I analyze its components, such as setting, character and language, in relation to Hip-Hop culture.
8 Mile is a semi-autobiographical account of Eminem, therefore a 1995 Detroit setting is appropriate. Eminem grew as a person and rapper in this time and place which is a reflection of B-Rabbit, the main character of the film. Setting is an important element in film language to help convey the theme, build an atmosphere and make the film believable. Detroit was a motivated setting to associate music and race as depicted in 8 Mile.
As represented in the film, the Hip-Hop culture in Detroit is one that depicts a division of race and social class. However, Detroit is not only an important city for Hip-Hop as author Chris Quispel titles the city with Detroit: City of Cars, City of Music. This is a title the author relates to the rise of Motown Records in the 1960’s and 1970, a time period that also reflects social and racial division with music as it did with Hip-Hop. Motown was one of the most important Black record labels in the United States and “Although almost everybody involved with the Motown label was Black, the music was successfully aimed at both a Black and White audience – this despite the volatile and hostile racial relations in Detroit” (Quispel, 226).
The hostile racial relations that Quispel examines is an issue that reached its climax in the summer of 1943 when the race riot occurred. Fights between young Blacks and Whites erupted and fought for several days. “34 people were killed, 25 of them Black, 675 were seriously injured and 1,893 people were arrested” (Quispel, 229) and this riot was a result of the growing competition between Blacks and Whites, a relationship that audiences witness in 8 Mile.
The depiction of Detroit’s racial and social relations in the film is already referenced in the title 8 Mile. The film’s title refers to 8 Mile Road in Detroit, a border in between 7 Mile Road, the Black neighborhood, and 9 Mile Road, the White neighborhood. Its division is physical and metaphorical as it separates two different cultures and communities (Esling, ch.8, location 1553). In the film, we see the difference between the White and Black neighborhood. When B-Rabbit and his entourage visit their friend Cheddar-Bob after his accident, they are in a White neighborhood. Director Curtis Hanson paces the scene in comparison to the neighborhood itself – slow, mundane and it lasts a striking two minutes compared to the rest of the film where it mostly takes place in a fast and eventful Black neighborhood with Hip-Hop clubs such as The Shelter, the streets and Detroit Stamping. The 8 Mile Road division in this instance can also be an indication between reality and aspiration. B-Rabbit, if unsuccessful in his career, may lead a mundane life but he aspires to become part of the Hip-Hop scene in 7 Mile Road and beyond.
While B-Rabbit spends most of his days in the Black neighborhood, he finds inspiration in the streets, at his job in Detroit Stamping and The Shelter. He rides the “8 Mile” bus to work and gazes out the window as the gritty streets of Detroit pass by. The character looks over at a liquor store, a gun range and a golf club – they are run-down with low maintenance which displays the area’s poverty. B-Rabbit then writes lyrics on a sheet of paper (that is old and mostly filled, showing that he is inspired and writes frequently) over the beats on his walkman. As Nas used the scenes in Queensbridge to inspire the artist’s masterful Illmatic (XXL Staff), B-Rabbit uses the Detroit scene to inspire his writing. The lyrics written in this scene eventually become a song titled “8 Mile” by Eminem on the film’s soundtrack, named after B-Rabbit’s bus. Segments of these lyrics display the character’s frustration of living in Detroit:
I just can’t do it, my whole manhood’s
just been stripped, I have just been vicked
So I must then get off the bus then split
Man fuck this shit yo, I’m going the fuck home
World on my shoulders as I run back to this 8 Mile Road
Detroit crime is also an aspect of the film. At one point, it introduces a murder and rape crime towards a young girl. Eventually, B-Rabbit and his entourage burn down the house where it took place which serves as another inspiring event to the rapper’s lyrics. As he works at the Detroit Stamping factory (another setting of inspiration), he sings:
Alex Latourno, Hotter than an inferno
Hotter than a crack house
He combines events of the night before: the start of his love interest with Alex Latourno and the burning of a crime scene.
B-Rabbit writes from personal experience which is the reality of Hip-Hop artists like, as mentioned earlier, Nas and his album Illmatic. This idea relates to an important theoretical outlook on Hip-Hop from Murray Forman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Forman, 88) as the streets of Detroit inspire B-Rabbit’s narrative lyrics. With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95).
Director Curtis Hanson depicts settings in 8 Mile with such grit and realism that B-Rabbit’s inspiration with Detroit is motivated and justified. Cinematically, this is accomplished by shooting on location while capturing the film with handheld and dark-toned cinematography. It offers a distinct parallel with the characters that inhabit the locations. Not only do the settings reflect the characters, but it reflects Hip-Hop culture as well with its use of The Shelter, a Detroit Hip-Hop club. Again, the director uses a real location to heighten the film’s authenticity. The Shelter, as described by author Jordan Ferguson, was a venue for people to showcase their talent (Ferguson 18). The main attractions were the “open mic battles that took place on Saturdays between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. The Saturday battles and the shop as a whole became a mandatory destination for Hip-Hop heads, a space wholly dedicated to the love and appreciation of the music and the culture, and a place for the city’s growing crew of artists to network and collaborate” (Ferguson 10). In relation to 8 Mile, the venue represents the struggles of a White man trying to become successful in a Black setting. The film’s sequences at The Shelter are examples of Curtis Hanson’s use of character and language in relation to Hip-Hop culture. I will examine B-Rabbit’s struggle in a racial setting from rap battle lyrics heard at the venue.
The Shelter is part of the first scene in the film as B-Rabbit prepares in the venue’s bathroom for a rap battle. The scene cuts to a battle on stage, showing a Black rapper vs another in front of a predominantly Black audience. Future, B-Rabbit’s friend and host of the rap battles, escorts B-Rabbit to the stage. He and his African-American opponent Lil’ Tic are ready to battle. Lil’ Tic starts first and what follows are important excerpts from his battle:
I’mma murder this man!
He’s the type to lose a fight with a dyke
They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic
You a wigger that invented rhymes for money
My paws love to maul an MC
Cause he’s faker than a psychic with caller ID
So that bullshit, save it for storage
Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist
So put ya hockey stick and baseball bat away
Cause this here Detroit, 16 Mile road thataway, thataway
Examining these lyrics, Lil’ Tic incorporates racial comments as he takes advantage of B-Rabbit’s isolation in their Black community. This is evident in the battle’s opening line, “They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic”. Shortly after, Lil’ Tic uses the term “wigger”. This is a slang term that is defined as a White person that tries to act Black. He accuses B-Rabbit of being a rapper with no passion that writes meaningless rhymes just to make money, which Lil’ Tic follows up and calls it “bullshit” material (Black Papillon, 1).
Hip-Hop is known as being an African-American genre. Hip-Hop theorist Jeffery O.G Ogbar supports this claim by acknowledging that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s. For example, Ogbar explains that the core of Hip-Hop was influenced by African-American pop culture such as James Brown and his dance moves influencing breaking dancing (Ogbar 12). Therefore, as Imani Perry is quoted by Ogbar, “Hip-Hop music is black American music” (Ogbar 12). This is why Lil’ Tic refers to B-Rabbit as a tourist – “Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist”. It is similar to saying, “This is 9 Mile Road [the Black community] and you don’t belong [because you’re not like us]”. He concludes his racial attacks by referencing sports ideally played by Whites and tells B-Rabbit to leave town.
B-Rabbit is stunned and faces a heckling crowd. They laugh in face and yell, “Choke!”. B-Rabbit does not say a word and hands the mic to Future. This withdrawal and defeat reflects the real life struggle Eminem went through while growing up in Detroit. As author Isabelle Esling writes, “During the time Marshall Mathers [Eminem] settled in Detroit, racial tensions divided both Black and White communities. A White kid wanted to rap faced a real challenge. Eminem’s road to success was far from easy. It required a lot of determination and drive” (Esling, ch.8, location 41).
By the end of the film, B-Rabbit returns to The Shelter for a second chance to battle the film’s antagonist Papa Doc and his crew, Leaders of the Free World. Again, B-Rabbit is caught receiving racial insults:
Fuckin 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
Ill crack your shoulder blade
You’ll get dropped so hard
Elvis will start turnin in his grave
I feel bad I gotta murder that dude from “Leave It To Beaver”
The lyrics use similar themes of race as the beginning of the film. The rappers scrutinize B-Rabbit for not being part of their crowd and compare him to White artists (Vanilla Ice, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley). However, B-Rabbit retaliates with rhymes and lyrics that wins the crowd’s attention and offers an insight on MC’s and freestyle in Hip-Hop. Freestyle competitions, by this time, have become a complex art form with more sophisticated rhythms. While an insult needs to be clever and insulting, freestyling rhymes must be “dope” in order to be accepted by a Hip-Hop audience (Pihel 253). B-Rabbit’s winning freestyle battle was against Papa Doc and not only did he insult him, but B-Rabbit rapped about his own life. Again, as Murray Forman explains, space is a big factor in Hip-Hop. Space inspires an MC to tell stories that are true and authentic, resulting in a strong connection with an MC’s audience (Forman 95). B-Rabbit also puts Murray Forman’s perspective into his insults towards Papa Doc:
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? he’s real name’s Clarence
And Clarence lives at home with both parents
And Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage
This guy don’t wanna battle, He’s shook
‘Cause there no such things as half-way crooks
He’s scared to death
He’s scared to look in his fucking yearbook, fuck Cranbrook
An MC moves an audience with words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) and their artistic success credibility resides in their class and/or race relation (Hodgman 402). B-Rabbit is an example of class-based authenticity. He lives in a trailer with his single mother with financial issues and struggles to achieve his dreams while working at a factory. He removes Papa Doc of all credibility. He takes pride in exposing Papa Doc’s background who was supposedly a more authentic rapper than B-Rabbit solely because of his Black background. Papa Doc is speechless and B-Rabbit proves his authenticity – something he was criticized for solely based on his racial status.
B-Rabbit is now an accepted Hip-Hop figure in Detroit and will presumably become a popular one since the character is a reflection of Eminem. Because of this acceptance and popularity in Hip-Hop, author Scott F. Parker examines Eminem (and B-Rabbit) in comparison to Elvis Presley. Parker states that Eminem is the “Elvis of Rap” because he is a White man who “makes Black music credibly, creatively and compellingly” (Parker, ch.1, location 531). Eminem produces music that theorist Jefferey O.G Ogbar associates with African-Americans (Ogbar 12) and Elvis Presley became popular with R&B, another predominately Black world.
As Elvis did with R&B, B-Rabbit in 8 Mile challenges the racial ideologies of Hip-Hop which was made possible by the character’s authenticity and talent as an MC. With Murray Forman’s and Jeffery O.G Ogbar’s theories of Hip-Hop, I analyzed how the appropriate Detroit setting reflects B-Rabbit’s racial discrimination in a Hip-Hop culture that is predominantly African-American. B-Rabbit uses his environment to write and tell compelling stories through rhyme that moves an audience and proves his role as an MC. He won the Black audience over, similar to how Eminem (a reflection of the 8 Mile character) gained respect from his audience. Talib Kweli, for instance, is an American Hip-Hop artist from New York City. Kweli’s origins and race are authentic in reference to Jefferey O.G Ogbar’s Hip-Hop discussion: Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12). Talib Kweli first witnessed Eminem battle in New York City and reminisces:
“I saw Eminem get dissed badly over and over again, mostly for being White, and then come back and obliterate his competition with the next rhyme. He did it every time. There were a few on his level, but nobody better” (Parker, forward, location 47).
This relates to B-Rabbit’s achievement in 8 Mile, a film that defines the Hip-Hop culture while challenging its ideologies. Going back to the discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends, DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”. By the end of 8 Mile, DJ IZ’s opinion is realized.
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