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Sunday, November 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Struggling to make it in a black man's world

Jimmy is just a poor white boy trying to make it in a black man's world.

To which the black men, some of them anyway, react with unbridled hostility. As depicted in the compelling new movie "8 Mile," they brand him with names one can't repeat in a daily newspaper. But for all that, perhaps the harshest thing they say about him isn't a curse word at all. They call him Elvis.

Black folks have always had this thing about Elvis.

On the one hand, we loved him ... the fact that Billboard magazine counts him one of the most successful black music artists of the '50s seems ample evidence of that. But in some ways we hated him, too. Every time they called him the king of rock 'n' roll, it felt like a bone wedged sideways in the throat.

Because we knew that rock 'n' roll was simply the name white folks gave our music when it crossed to their side of the tracks. And that even though the sound was ours, a shantytown plaint born of our rhythm and nursed on our blues, they would never acknowledge any black man — not Fats Domino, not Little Richard, not the mighty Chuck Berry himself — as its king.

So when some of the black guys tag a white rapper with that name, it's not a compliment, but an accusation. They are charging him with trespass, calling him a cultural imperialist out to colonize, exploit and ultimately take what they have made. They are telling him that rap will have no white king.

"8 Mile," for those who don't know, stars the famously vile Eminem as the rapper wannabe, Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith. No Eminem fan am I, so it surprised my wife and kids when I went to see his movie the other day. A bigger shock: I liked it a lot.

Not just because of the profane poetry of its script or the fact that it manages to encapsulate its place, time, generation and culture as vividly as "Saturday Night Fever" did 25 years ago. No, what intrigued me most was the movie's take on the politics of race and culture.

Rabbit lives with his alcoholic mother and her good-for-nothing boyfriend in one of those trailer parks where hope goes to die. He pilots a rusted old sedan through grimy streets on the edge of nowhere. Watching him is a visceral reminder of how often we use race as proxy for ain't got and can't get. We say black when we mean crime, black when we mean squalor, black when we mean poor.

But Rabbit is poor as dirt and white as snow. "8 Mile" forces us to either say what we mean or discard our outmoded paradigms altogether.

In the movie — as in life, for that matter — the rappers meet for weekly "battles," freestyle competitions where success hinges upon your ability to conjure rhyming, rhythmic insults off the top of your head. And some of the black rappers don't want the white rapper joining those battles because he is, after all, a white rapper.

You begin to wonder what that means, come to marvel at its power to define and divide, when you realize that all of them come from the same place and all want the same thing: To wake up one morning in lives they do not hate.

The movie suggests that if we were wiser, race would not be the difference that trumps those similarities. If we were wiser, we would understand that poor people, of whatever color, have shared grievance and common cause.

It's not a new thought. Martin Luther King was exploring it when he died. But it is a thought with power to rattle the creaky battlements of race, the tired old fortresses of us and them, privilege and want, acrimony and recrimination. A thought to make us wonder if there are not, or ought not occasionally be, concerns that surmount ethnicity and tribe.

Rabbit, not unlike a photo negative Jackie Robinson, simply longs to belong to something he loves. To be judged for who he is, and not what.

Ultimately, it's any individual's right to demand that. But watching a white man forced to demand it of black men is a reminder that the world has changed some in the last half century.

Maybe Elvis really has left the building.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com.

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