8 Mile turns 15: An appreciation of the final rap battles
Celebrate the underrated film's anniversary by reflecting on the inspired ending
Every hero has an origin story. For Eminem, it was 8 Mile, Curtis Hanson’s semi-biographical film based on the Detroit rapper’s rise to fame. And like every superhero movie, it builds to an epic final battle. Well, battles in this case.
Upon the release of 8 Mile on Nov. 8, 2002, Eminem was at the height of his powers. Only a few months later, he would earn his third Grammy for Best Rap Album in four years, soon followed by an Oscar for Best Original Song for 8 Mile‘s No. 1 hit “Lose Yourself.” Yet, with his lone major acting role, he proved he was more than just a controversy-seeking, award-winning, game-changing rapper.
Set in 1995 Detroit, the film, which raked in more than $240 million at the box office, stars Eminem as Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. B-Rabbit, a talented MC who lacks confidence and resources. B-Rabbit works a blue-collar job and recently moved back into his mother’s (Kim Basinger!) trailer, where he constantly bumps heads with her abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon!!). And if things couldn’t get any worse, when he gets his chance to make a mark with his music, he chokes during the opening rap battle at The Shelter. Along the way, B-Rabbit meets and loses a girl named Alex (Brittany Murphy!!!) and gets jumped by a rival crew called the Leaders of the Free World, led by none other than Anthony Mackie (!!!!) in his film debut.
Throughout B-Rabbit’s ups and downs (mostly downs), Eminem shines, with the usually outspoken and contentious rapper excelling in the quiet moments, enabling the character’s struggles to get out of his grim situation hit home. As much as he seemed to be going against type, when it came time for Eminem to be Eminem and not Marshall Mathers or Jimmy Smith, he turned on that switch to did what he does best.
After choking in the initial battle and literally throwing up his mom’s spaghetti, B-Rabbit returned to The Shelter, searching redemption, respect, and self-confidence. Now, I’ve never been to a rap battle (shocking, right?), but during 8 Mile‘s climax, Hanson transports you into that packed Detroit room, making you feel every insult and every verse. And as great as Eminem was in the film, the director, who was an unorthodox choice considering his previous and future work (no offense to those In Her Shoes stans), deserves immense credit for the film’s success.
The three-battle sequence — all against members of the Free World — gets off to a decent start, highlighted by B-Rabbit declaring he’ll “walk my white ass back across 8 mile” as he turns away and drops his pants to show his bare ass. It goes up a level in the second round, even if all the competition mostly does is make jokes about him being white (“I feel bad that I got to murder that guy from Leave it to Beaver“). But, in the final round, B-Rabbit saved the best for last, and specifically, Mackie’s Papa Doc — and himself.
“I know everything he’s about to say against me,” he raps midway through his verse. “I am white. I am a f—ing bum. I do live in a trailer with my mom. My boy Future (there is a Mekhi Phifer!) is an Uncle Tom. I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones) who shoots himself in his leg with his own gun. I did get jumped by all six of you chumps. And Wink (Eugene Byrd) did f— my girl. I’m still standing here screaming f— the Free World.”
And after demolishing himself, he moves onto his rival. “This guy’s a gangsta? His real name’s Clarence,” he says of Papa Doc. “And Clarence lives at home with both parents, and Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage.” Then, if that wasn’t enough, as the beat ends, he brings it home with a vicious finish. “F— y’all if you doubt me. I’m a piece of f—ing white trash, I say it proudly. F— this battle, I don’t want to win. I’m outie, here, tell these people something they don’t know about me,” he declares, tossing the mic to a stunned Clarence (by rule, he can no longer be referred to as Papa Doc).
Anthony Mackie is a superhero, but to me, he’ll always be the guy that got demolished and left speechless by Eminem. “I don’t know if Papa Doc was always going to end up speechless,” Eminem previously told Grantland. “But it worked. I had to leave him how he left Rabbit earlier in the movie. And I think the plan was always at the end for me to start dissing myself. Because that’s what I actually did in battles to try and take people’s ammo away.”
Dissing himself and his on-camera challengers wasn’t where it ended, though. According to Grantland, an unused montage was filmed of B-Rabbit advancing through the competition. Local rappers would spit their verses as Eminem stood by silent (he had been instructed to rest his voice for the actual scenes). “I was told that the mics were going to be off when we were doing the montage scenes of Rabbit coming up through the ranks and we were supposed to pantomime. For some reason, some of the others’ mics were on and they started going at me in front of the crowd,” Eminem recalled, prompting him to have his mic turned on so he could “eviscerate” one of them. “He was getting a reaction from the crowd and I felt like I had to respond. I guess that instinct never goes away.”
Clearly. Just ask Donald Trump.