JANUARY 16, 2003
Eminem: Hip-Hop Hype
Somewhere near the middle of rapper Eminem's new film, 8 Mile, it dawned on me why I was uneasy. I had looked forward to the "semi-autobiographical" coming-of-age story by the Detroit hip-hop artist, expecting some good prophetic cultural critique. This is after all the man who once claimed that "God put me on this earth to piss people off." Unfortunately, 8 Mile, more a product of Hollywood than inner-city Detroit, replicates the conventional myths and rites of marketed adolescence. Hip-hop hope succumbs to Hollywood hype.
8 Mile celebrates Eminem as a hero, in the vein of John Wayne, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker. His portrayal in the film conforms to what John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett have recently described as the "classical monomyth" in The Myth of the American Superhero. Throughout the film, Eminem must prove himself as a rapper. He fails at first, literally rendered silent in a hip hop duel against a rapper from a gang ironically called "The Leaders of the Free World." But by the end of the film, Eminem prevails. He silences his (black) antagonist, revealing his own poverty credentials in a stunning string of poetic self-lacerations, and then exposes his antagonist as a prep school gangsta' wannabe. Eminem may seem an unlikely hero, but in a culture that refuses to take social systems seriously, his portrayal in 8 Mile reinforces the romantic convention of the heroic individual who surmounts all obstacles to win his salvation, or at least a little peace and respect.
Even more troubling than this conventional plot-line in the film is the way it might function as an "initiatory fantasy" for viewers. Ronald Grimes has penned a cogent appeal in Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage for religious folk to attend to the global problem of initiation rites. With his help, we can see how 8 Mile is a two hour testament to just how troubled American culture is on this matter.
Throughout the film Eminem longs to get his big break -- to get a recording contract or to buy some time in the studio to cut a "demo." That the viewer knows that Eminem will realize his dream makes this desire seem salutary. But for most viewers, of course, this desire is a fantasy. Grimes explains: an initiatory fantasy is "compensatory, growing out of what we lack, what we are unable to own, or own up to." The simple fact is that most rappers -- no matter how talented -- simply won't win in a society whose systems are stacked against them. Grimes continues with the grim conclusion: "Because it is a way of avoiding responsibility, [an initiatory fantasy] destroys the possibility of authentic cross-cultural interaction and interreligious communication. When a group fantasizes its initiations, it should expect trouble."
Now, 8 Mile grossed $54.8 million on its first weekend. That's a lot of potential trouble. And the trouble does not come from the profanity, racial politics, misogyny, or street crime in the film -- although those things are disturbing enough. The trouble with 8 Mile is that it mirrors the theology of the market that reduces young people to their roles as producers or consumers, as victims or victimizers in a world where words are effective only in the currency of curses.
If the film thus offers glimmering examples of the fascinating hybridity, and indeed the word-driven hope, of hip hop itself, it finally subsumes that hope to hype. 8 Mile reveals the word struggling to articulate and resolve the inherited contradictions of a culture divided by age, gender, race, and class -- but silenced before them all by the myth of the heroic individual.
Jon Pahl is a professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He explores some of the themes in this essay more fully in his Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930-the present (Hendrickson Publishers, 2000).