American Skin, 8 Mile, and the death of racial misconceptions



      "American Skin"

      written by Ely Wynton

      published by Crown Publishing


      "8 Mile"

      directed by Curtis Hanson

      produced by Universal Studios/Dreamworks


American Skin, 8 Mile, and the death of racial misconceptions


review by Okore Okirike


If Ely Wynton was wrapping up his cultural thesis American Skin during the first Oscar rush of the 2002-2003 season, he might've appended a chapter on the next big step by a major industry that brings a heel down on slices of whte-bread american life. The industry is Hollywood. The milestone is the film"8 mile". The occasion is the first true showcase of the white-american sub-minority. That is, Caucasian-Americans youth feeling burdened of their whiteness where hip-hop and it's preeminent blackness actually are the status quo. The"streets" of Detroit are one such place. The modern media's concept of"cool" is another, if only figuratively.


In his book, Wynton asserts that media and big business are the cauldron and bonfire stewing up the freshest batches of melting-pot americans. He unwisely diminishes the effects of sexual attraction, and of aesthetic attraction for one another's cultural affects, music, foods, dances etc. Lately, however, it does seem to be big-business' desire to capitalize on it's best kept secret that has the pot bubbling. The secret is our natural attraction for each-other with only conditioned regard for the fabricated"do-not-cross" lines of race. Big-busness perpetuates that this is strange and exotic, in order to further one of it's more prominent interests: The preservation of the white-american majority. This paradox is where the greed of capitalism begins to eat it's own tail. Historically, it has been the greediest of corporations--example: Coca-cola--that first gives in and sets out to cash in on our underlying desire to love one-another. Example: Coca-cola's Mean Joe Green ad campaign in the early 1980s. Wynton pinpoints this as the first major turnng point.


In the commercial, Mean Joe--scourge/all star of the NFL at the time-- is offered a coke by a cute little white kid. Dramatc tension; he takes it. Dramatic tension; he drinks it. Release, and the angels sing. Then Joe, the media painted paragon of scary blackness, returns the favor by tossing the kid his sweaty but valuable game jersey. Millions of white parents who hadn't really wanted to believe that Joe would maul their little angels given half the chance, breathed sighs of relief and bought coke by the barrlel-full. The climax of"8 mile" pesents a similar such catharsis. The protagonist Rabbit--a white lyricist--is embraced by an overwhelmingly black audience that seemed posed and ready to boo him off stage. 8 mile road is the long stretch that seperates the suburbs of Detroit from the Detroit shouted out when emcees take a moment to represent. Heard more frequently since the preceeding rise of the movie's star and driving force: Detroit lyricist Eminem. The protagonist Rabbit's life eerily mirrors Eminem's own, though stopping short of the of the whirl-wind tour, media mud-slinging, and eventual acceptance as Elvis reincarnated. The next "White Negro" Wynton addresses the"white negro" concept in American skin. It involves a white figure gaining popularity for the parts of his shtick assimilated from black artists. Davy Crockett may have been the first, with his fiddle playing and boot-stomping Tim Pang Alley style back in that era. The snide tone of this view may be appropriate for the shamelessly self-aggrandizing Crockett, and for the cowardly and dishonest"King of Rock and Roll", but it looses weight with Eminem, who is earnest in homage to his black contemporaries and predecessors. In the film, Rabbit actually finds himself struggling for respect amidst their shadows.


His saving grace, and the moral of the movie, is to embrace and explore his own identity. This has been a basic pillar of hip-hop as an artform from the very beginning. Thus aroze the mistaken notion that succesful hip-hop would always be about the ghetto, thug-life, and being oppressed but dreaming big. Rabbit meets success with flows about the trailer park, domestic squabbles, and being oppressed but dreaming big. The audience at the on-screen emcee competition eats it up. The same crowd might've booed off the stage a white emcee who tried to jump on the thug-life wagon. As Rabbit pens his show-stopping lyrics, his little sister is accross from him drawing with crayon a picture of her house and her family. A subtle refrence to the embracing of identity that is second nature to a child when creating art. The succes of 8 mile was a wake up call to hundereds of square Hollywood executives. Suddenly they realized they could draw their white-youth demographic, and black-youth demographic in to see the same film. Wynton mentions Make-up manufacturers having a similar epihanie when Cover-Girl had the sense to include it's new darker shades in it's regular line, rather than launching black-woman lines like it's competitors. Suddenly the company's popularity almost doubled.


Big business seems to be the king of overlooking the obvious. But Wynton makes a similar mistake in perpetuating the melting-pot concept. The pot is more of a bowl. And the stew is more of a salad where no two vegetables are the same, and new variations with new unique tastes are constantly being formed. When identity is embraced by each ingredient, and the identity of other ingredients is as well respected, the result is a truly vibrant and ever-changing human salad.