The road to Hollywood is littered with the corpses of pop stars who've tried their hand at acting and found the world wasn't ready for their close-ups (stand up Michael Jackson, Maria Carey, Madonna). Which is probably why 8 Mile has the oddball pairing of Eminem and Curtis Hanson. Just as Dr Dre lent Marshall Mathers III credibility when he emerged onto the hip hop scene a few years ago, Wonder Boys director Hanson gives the rapper cinematic legitimacy for his big screen debut - and, man, does he come off well.
As Rabbit, an aspiring MC from a broken home who's trying to work his way up through Detroit's black hip-hop clubs, he's essentially playing a fictionalised version of himself. However, rather than turn 8 Mile into an Eminem vanity project, Hanson and writer Scott Silver (Johns) hone the star's personality traits to create a strong, socially-aware character-driven drama.
Like Hanson's L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile has a strong sense of place. The title refers to the street that separates Detroit's affluent white neighbourhoods from its poor black ones and Hanson - by way of Amores Perros cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's fluid-but-raw hand-held work - brilliantly captures the chaos of a once great industrial city gone to ruin. Rabbit, or Jimmy Smith Jr (Eminem), is the nominal white kid from the wrong side of the tracks who dreams of using his MC skills to get out of Detroit's run-down 313 area. By day he works in a steel plant, at night he works on his lyrics in the trailer he shares with his boozy, bingo-addicted white-trash mother Stephanie (Basinger) and adoring six-year-old sister Lily (Greenfield).
In the opening scenes we see Rabbit choke in front of a sea of black faces at a free-style battle hosted by his friend Future (Phifer). He scuttles off stage to catcalls of "Vanilla Ice" - something the real Slim Shady endured on his way up. The rest of the film is built around Rabbit finding his voice. On the surface it's a hip-hop Rocky, but while the subtext of Stallone's film was about putting a smart-talking black man - namely Muhammad Ali - in his place, 8 Mile is about defusing racial tension and focussing attention on the economic deprivation that intensifies division. As Future tells Rabbit: "When they hear you, it's not gonna matter what colour you are."
If there's a fault with this set-up it's that the women are under-served. Rabbit's love interest Alex (Brittany Murphy - looking like Courtney Love circa 1991), is a wannabe model who is trying to make it by screwing someone to help her get a portfolio together. As for Basinger, her moment of redemption comes when she wins the bingo. For a film that skilfully negotiates racial and class-issues with a minimum of clichés, it's a little depressing that it is so reductive with its female characters.