Ten years ago today, on November 8, 2002, Eminem fans around the country flocked to theaters, eventually making the rapper’s biopic, 8 Mile, the number one film in America. The R-rated drama, which also starred Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Brittney Murphy, and Taryn Manning – with a cameo from rapper Xzibit – went on to gross over $200 million worldwide. Even the soundtrack was a best-seller, and it cemented Eminem as the first rapper to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Lose Yourself”.
But the story, which was set in “The D” in 1995, began years earlier.
The Detroit of my childhood was almost 90 percent Black, and the other 10 percent wasn’t necessarily White. It was Mexican, Chaldean, and then Caucasian. The result of “White Flight” in the ’70s, the city’s racial makeup meant that growing up there, you could live entire days and not see a White person. Your classmates, your teachers and principal, your police officers, your Mayor… all looked like you. Unless, of course, you traveled north of the now iconic 8 Mile Road.
The story of Eminem’s initial ostracism from Detroit Hip-Hop is a story too often told. Eventually, Eminem was accepted by most of the close-knit community. And, he kept his promises – coming back for D12 and Obie Trice.
Em’s success was rubbing off on numerous artists who were benefiting from the national attention the city brought by his constant name-dropping. By the time word began to get out that “Marshall” was making a movie, the city was more than behind him. We were all excited and ready for our close up.
The flyers went up first, advertising that Universal Pictures was casting for “The Untitled Detroit Project.” But the location of the flyers, St. Andrews Hall and other Hip-Hop clubs in “The D,” made it pretty obvious. This was it. Marshall was making a movie…about us. The lines at the casting calls were like reunions, as the same people that you saw at all the same shows, open mics, and other events showed up.
We laughed as we filled out our forms listing our ages, height, weight, and type of car. My 1995 Mercury Tracer, affectionately known as the Purple Pill, was cast. And so was I. I had a callback for a speaking part, “Future? Why do they call you Future?” I remember the line exactly. I was asked if I would have a problem sitting on someone’s lap, and told that it was possible that my breast might pop out. And, while I was more than amenable to both, I didn’t get that part.
Instead, I, like 400 others, was cast in a starring role as a member of the crowd during the battle scenes. The filming was brutal. The movie was shot in winter. The set, a replica of St. Andrews Hall basement venue known as The Shelter, was cold almost the entire time. For over five days, we would be a part of history, witnesses to a private Eminem concert. What most people don’t know about those magical scenes is that we, that crowd, were not new to rap battles. Most of us knew each other from the Detroit Hip-Hop community. The casting was deliberate. We were expert audience members – Detroiters who weren’t easily impressed by superstardom but inspired by great lyrics.
So, when, before the final scene on the fourth day, director Curtis Hanson came out to thank us for our work. For enduring the hard, 14-hour days, for braving the cold and uncomfortable set. Most of us, like Em and Mekhi, had practically lost our voices. He told us that he was proud of us, that we looked, on film, in a word…beautiful.
Then, he told us to get set for the filming of the final battle. By the time it happened. B-Rabbit vs. Poppa Doc, our excitement was real. This battle felt real. We had seen it progress. We were ready to see the climax. Shouting “What? What?” with no cue. Curtis Hanson told the camera operators to ready for rehearsal, the first run through of the scene. Yet, this time, he decided to record it.
“Now everybody from the 3-1-3, put your motherf*cking hands up and follow me!” Eminem unexpectedly shouted at the crowd.
And like we would, cameras on or not, we put our f*cking hands up.
The crowd shot of that entire room hands high, and most of the final battle scene, is our unscripted rehearsal. It was our natural reaction to Eminem’s lyrics and how they made us feel. It was the climax and reality that we were filming a major motion picture about the two very things most of us loved most – Hip-Hop and Detroit. And 10 years later, it still speeds up my heart and brings a tear to my eye.
This is my Detroit.
Not the city that the media has taught the world to fear listed as one of the most dangerous cities in America. Not the city that has a Black youth unemployment rate of near 50 percent. But, the city so connected to its musical history and heritage that we changed the face of the industry – twice. And we will, undoubtedly, do it again.
I don’t live in my hometown. I moved just over three years ago for a better job and better writing opportunities. But Detroit will always be my home. I’m a Coney dog-eating, “What Up Doe”-speaking, hustler from 6 Mile, and I always will be.
Ten years after the release of 8 Mile, a movie which showed Detroit’s truth to the world, it’s still us vs. them. Detroit vs. “The Free World.”
And I still will now, like I did then, bet on “The D”… for the win.