orget, for a moment, the concept of “white” and “black” genres. You would probably do well to forget black and white altogether, especially when considering a movie made (MPAA notwithstanding) for fourteen-year-olds, a generation who, to the credit of our progressive civilization, are less racist than we. Forget—and I realize it’s going to be difficult—Elvis. Cut the cord already. Please. It’s been fifty years. The oh . . . my . . . GOD-ing, text messaging, multi-skin-toned crowd at the opening night of 8 Mile doesn’t go gooey over Heartbreak Hotel, and the only blue suede shoes they know are their Vans® Caballeros. The metaphor is wasted on them. They weren’t fazed one bit by what the New York Times called “the absurdity of a white rapper who takes down a brother in a club full of black people.”
It seems that one generation’s absurdity is mundane to the next. What is the same from one generation to another, however—what 8 Mile delivers in spades—is righteousness.
Righteousness is the goal of man. It was the goal of the ancients, who sought harmony and balance in all things. It was the goal of the moderns, who wanted to elevate and educate all men through science. It is the goal of this postmodern age in which we try to describe reality in all its fragmented glory. It is also the goal of every adolescent who attempts to extricate herself from the sorrowful compost heap of her parents’ generation and her parents’ guilt.
In the narrative of 8 Mile and in the minds of its young audience, Bunny Rabbit, the not-quite-autobiographical character played by Eminem, is a righteous kid in a guilty world. He is so painfully righteous, in fact, that a more accurate comparison than the King of Rock and Roll might be the King of the Jews.
In an unlikely string of vignettes, our rapping Rabbit grossly approximates the public ministry of that two-thousand-year-old carpenter. He loves the little children, a point heavy-handedly driven home in the numerous and gushy scenes in which Eminem gurgles over the prone form of his retarded-seeming little sister. He comforts the lonely: In a particularly PR conscious moment, Bunny Rabbit is the one person that sticks up for the token lonely gay dude at the GM plant. He cares for the sick, visiting his convalescing friend, Cheddar Bob, after he’s injured himself by drawing a weapon—like Simon Peter—to come to Rabbit’s aid in a fist fight.
Bunny’s enemies have a pharisaical bent to them. They deride him for his lowly birthplace, a trailer park in a poor, white suburb of Detroit, even though they themselves, as purveyors of a “street” medium, should be defenders of the lower class. And like the King of the Jews, Rabbit is constantly betrayed: by his girl, by his friends, and by a supposed contact to the recording industry.
The familiar, biblical feeling is at its most intense in the last scene, during Rabbit’s rap battle with his more popular nemesis, Papa Doc. Rabbit triumphs through his humility, preemptively confessing the circumstantial flaws of his white trash upbringing and pointing out to the crowd that Doc doesn’t exactly deserve the street credibility he’s given. The inside of the cup is unclean.
Even the film itself has an archetypal quality that echoes the gospels, although this is due in part to its sly and patient marketing campaign. It’s archetypal because people disparage it so carefully. Critics seem to have spent considerable time and effort planning how, precisely, they were going to dislike this movie long before its first screening. It’s not true to hip-hop. It’s a public relations gimmick. It’s too trite, too white, too commercial, contains no positive female role models. And of course all these things are true—but such criticism only adds to the totemic righteousness of the film. Bunny Rabbit, like Eminem and the King of the Jews, is never so eloquent as when he must defend himself.
None of these criticisms explain why 8 Mile—clearly derivative of older films—is still a story that any teenage boy would be proud to tell about himself if he could. American culture has interpreted the timeless human drive to attain higher moral ground in a particularly ingrown way and Rabbit’s story is the epitome of this maladaptation: We want to be right so we can be left alone.
Every metaphor has its limits. Jesus probably never smoked pot, shot paintballs at cop cars, or had sex with Mary Magdelene in a car factory—yet this is not where our metaphor of righteousness breaks down. Rabbit—comforter of the lonely, friend to children, doer of the right thing—turns from the path of the master in this: he shafts his friends. Just like that. At the end of the film he has overcome his circumstances, he has faced up to his trailer trash existence and charted a clear course out of the 810. And what does he do with this newfound liberation? Leaves his boys behind. Decides to make a demo tape on his own. The K.O.J. would never have shown such disrespect. After all, who was it that said “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”?
So Bunny Rabbit betrays Future, the best friend who helped him gain his confidence, in favor of his own future, the abstract concept of tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. In this respect he is not very different from another famous rabbit, a wretched little fellow for whom time is perpetually running out.
This is the real flaw in the pop paradigm that demands that each generation conquer the preceding one in a self righteous huff: we die alone in our precious righteousness. We want to be ourselves, but what we become are caricatures of ourselves—all of us mini rock stars adrift in the solo careers of our lives. It’s a kind of morality that gets us nowhere, for it cannot be shared or built upon. The next generation merely repeats the same motion and we have another wave of little Elvises or Eminems or J.Lo’s. How many more cycles will it take? What happens if we never figure it out?
“Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” —The White Rabbit
- “The Eminem Consensus ” by Richard Goldstein, The Village Voice.