The Real Slim Shady has stood up.

By Gus Bode

Go ahead and argue that he did that months, maybe even years, ago. I might buy it. Tell me that his riffs and raps against the gays, the blacks, Moby and the American empire are all the voice of a definitive new cultural voice, and I might just believe you.

I wouldn’t have two years ago. Not a chance.

But then came “The Eminem Show,” that catchy little CD with that catchy little song and that other catchy song and those catchy songs that fill the gaps in between. Lord have mercy! The boy has talent. His CD was wedged in my car for months, refusing to leave, and I finally began to see the influence, the art, the absolute intrigue with which this man works. And all this time, I just thought he was cocky.

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It’s a short trip from this realization to the jaw-dropping shock of watching Em in “8 Mile,” an excellent movie with an excellent star that may be one of the more excellent surprises Hollywood has laid on us in a while. Can Eminem act? He’s searing. Go ahead and chalk it up to the fact that he’s essentially playing himself, and yes, he really hasn’t proved anything here.

No matter. His screen presence is so dynamic that you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to him, watching his subtle swagger and the way his blue eyes can switch from apathy to anger in the space of just a few frames of film. One review I read compared his presence to that of James Dean – a stretch, perhaps, but certainly in the right ballpark. And while his future career in cinema has yet to be written, Slim can go home assured of one thing:He’s made a damn fine film, and certainly one that will resonate as cinema’s tell-all representation of what hip-hop has come to mean in this culture.

After all, that’s what we’re thrown into. Detroit. 1995. We meet Rabbit (Eminem) as he warms up in a dilapidated bathroom, practicing his raps and moves as he stares into a broken mirror. His friends come to get him; it’s time for the Friday night freestyle battle, where Rabbit is the only white guy in the house. He throws up. He goes out on stage. He chokes. He’s laughed at.

And then he returns to his trailer-trash home and his trailer-trash mother (a poignant Kim Basinger), located on the other side of 8 Mile, the road that separates Detroit’s black and white ghettoes. Here, with his young baby sister and his mom’s boyfriend, perhaps half her age, Rabbit sees life twisting apart; his street cred is being chalked up to loser; his life goes between a job pressing sheet metal and driving around with his friends, led by Future (Mekhi Phifer); a girl (Brittany Murphy) enters his life, but he’s damned if he knows what to make of her.

“You ever wonder at what point you have to stop living up here and start living down here,” Rabbit gestures about halfway through the film, and although he understands what he needs to do to turn his life around by following what is God-given talent, action is tougher than words. However, with no other options before him, he returns to battle the following Friday. The excitement of the film’s climax sends cheers and applause through the audience.

You could give complete credit for this to Eminem, who obviously gives his all to the part, but that would be denying props to director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys”), who steers the story with such a conversational tone that the audience can hear the characters think, an attribute so rare in today’s overblown cinema.

Of course, so is a musician turning in a decent film performance.

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But not only is it Slim Shady, it’s the real Slim Shady, and this film, taken with his recent album, paints a much deeper picture of him. There’s more to him than just clever raps about the state of the FCC. With his new single “Lose Yourself,” he gives an uplifting message for the first time, one that inspires without being sappy, one that is motivating without being preachy.

It’s the same feeling that propels “8 Mile” to excellence.

This applause is all for you.

Starring:Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer

Running Time:1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing at the Varsity Theater

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