No escape

Universal Pictures, '8 mile', Curtis Hanson (director), general release

T here is a long and cringe-making tradition in the bourgeois celebrity world of the singer becoming actor and vice versa, a tradition which often ends in a rather embarrassing debacle for all parties involved. In 8 mile, this transition is, in a rare instance, successfully pulled off in what is a poignant examination of an artist whose work has caused much controversy across the political spectrum. The rapper Eminem stars in the role of 'Rabbit', a young, white, working class man, juggling his shifts at a local metal-pressing plant with pursuing his dream of a rap career, and his difficult home life in Eight Mile, a degenerated slum district of Detroit. Unusually for a film forged in the publicity-conscious and often artistically ignorant boardrooms of the music industry, this film carries some interesting concepts, and the depiction of working class life in the midst of widespread unemployment and alienation provides a stark realism not often seen in this genre. The scenes depicting workers rapping to each other whilst on their break is an insight into the working class-led culture from below from which roots hip-hop has grown. There are certain aspects to the movie, however, which have to be regarded with more than a little cynicism. For instance, Rabbit's difficult, but loving relationship with his mother, his love and protective attitude towards his young sister and his defence in one scene of a gay worker in the pressing factory clearly contradict sentiments and autobiographical details conveyed in the artist's own music. One detects a slight whiff of record industry spin throughout - depicting Eminem in a more positive light in order perhaps to erase prior conceptions. Regardless of this, however, the film is cohesive and convincing, making it enjoyable to watch even for those not familiar with his music. And what of Eminem's music? The rapper has, since his appearance on the commercial music scene, been denounced for sexism, homophobia, and a host of other evils which he has embodied in his work, which some see as ironic, others as "bile" (Socialist Worker). It is, in essence, 'hate music', a by-product of alienation, which often has little concrete political direction or answers for the working class. It is thus insightful in the aftermath of a film such as this to read the left's response and criticism. Socialist Worker, for instance, gives significant praise to 8 mile, citing it as a tale exploring "poverty, anger, alienation, escape and hope very successfully" (January 25). This is fair comment. However, the review does unfortunately represent a tendency by a proportion of the left to gloss over points where a piece of art is lacking, focusing instead on its spurious contribution to the struggle for revolution and working class liberation. Politically, in fact, 8 mile has little to offer in terms of direction for workers like Rabbit. Without revealing the ending, in the last instance we are left with the image of our protagonist as a cynical, angry and complacent human being whose only motto is 'Fuck you all'. Such an attitude is not one of communists, but more one of situationist anarchism. In addition, the "brilliant world of street poetry" memorable for Socialist Worker reviewer Pat Stack is often a series of vicious jibes between rival gangs of workers, who throughout the film fight against each other, misdirecting their anger and frustration which really should be aimed at the US state and the system of capital. The film depicts an image of hopelessness and extreme alienation with little hint at a solution - the only 'escape' offered being going it alone into the bourgeois music business, leaving past friends far behind. This for comrade Stack is an attempt to "conquer [Rabbit's] personal demons, to give his life meaning and direction", resolved with "sad ambiguity". Whether personal demons are conquered is questionable, but it is certain that the resolution represents a detachment from the friends and community which encouraged and helped him into the music business. This does not make 8 mile a poor film, however, as this 'escape' is for many working class people a dream, a way of ridding themselves of the humdrum and associated ills of working life in order to pursue a career in stardom, romantically denouncing everything which has plagued them during harder times. As communists though, we must not simply put forward slogans which assign the 'fuck' prefix before every manifestation of capitalist oppression, but rather adopt slogans which seek to raise consciousness above the facade of individual escape from the ills of bourgeois society and point towards the society of the future. James Bull