Hustle & Flow
Director : s Craig Brewer
Screenplay : Craig Brewer
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Terrence Howard (DJay), Anthony Anderson (Key), Taryn Manning (Nola), Taraji P. Henson (Shug), Paula Jai Parker (Lexus), Elise Neal (Yevette), DJ Qualls (Shelby), Ludacris (Skinny Black)
In Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, Terrence Howard, who has been an ensemble and supporting player in dozens of movies over the past decade, does a star-making turn as DJay, a low-level hustler and pot dealer on the mean streets of Memphis, Tennessee. Howard's searing performance walks a fine tightrope, filling out gangsta cliches with an invigorating and contradictory mix of hardness and regret, violence and tenderness, ambition and generosity. He's a complicated character, one who grows on you as the film progresses, even when he lashes out violently or uses people around him to his own ends. He is a product of his environment, and you get the sense that he would be an entirely different person in different circumstances. On the surface, he's a pimp and a dealer, but unlike so many similar characters in movies, it's never what he wanted.
At heart, Hustle & Flow is an underdog story about how DJay tries to escape his place in life through music. But, unlike so many similar tales, Hustle & Flow doesn't revel in romanticism and it's doesn't buy easily into pipe dreams about how simple talent can immediately elevate someone from the muck in which he is mired. A lesser movie would have charted DJay's rise to the top of the charts, perhaps throwing in some cautionary pap about the dangers of fame and quick wealth. Hustle & Flow is a much better film for its decision to keep its focus more tightly restricted to DJay's desperate efforts just to get a seat at the table. It takes the first act of the underdog story and stretches it out to feature length, allowing for details and insight that are normally glossed over.
Much of this detail involves DJay's relationships with those around him, particularly two of his prostitutes, Shug (Taraji P. Henson), who is sad-eyed and pregnant, and Nona (Taryn Manning), who is feisty and bitter, constantly frustrated by the fact that she doesn't like her life, but can't think of anything better to do with it. Unfortunately, unlike DJay, these female characters do verge on stereotypes, and Brewer's attempts to find empowerment for them in the final reel seem like weak efforts given the casual and overt misogyny that cuts through the rest of the film.
DJay's producer, Keys (Anthony Anderson), is his social inverse, an upstanding middle-class churchgoer with a wife (Elise Neal) and a respectable career as a sound recorder. DJay and Keys went to high school together and just happen to bump into each other at a convenience store, a bit of serendipidity that some might find a bit strained (the film's only other truly weak moment is the cheap laughs it tried to generate by thrusting DJay and two of his girls into Key's squeaky-clean living room).
DJay's goal is to cut a respectable demo tape and get it into the hands of Skinny Black (Ludacris), who came from DJay's neighborhood, but has found soaring success as a hip-hop artist. Skinny will be in town over the fourth of July weekend for a party in one of his old haunts, and this may be DJay's only opportunity to get his work into the hands of someone who can get it heard. Skinny is initially depicted as DJay's fantasy projection of himself -- what he could be if he only got the chance. But, Hustle & Flow isn't that simple; it isn't bloated and blinded by the power of fame and fortune. Rather, it focuses on DJay's need to express himself, which just happens to be through music.
DJay raps about his life as a pimp and a dealer, but as the film shows, it's more than just music because it genuinely embodies his experiences. There is a lot of talk in the film about selling about; it pits Skinny's mega-success via dilution of his originality against DJay's desire to lay down his life on tracks for others to hear, regardless of how much money it makes him.
Writer/director Craig Brewer isn't a terribly original filmmaker (his opening shot is copped too obviously from The Godfather, for example), but he does have a fresh view of a tired genre, and he clearly appreciates the grit of reality over prepackaged smoothness. In that respect, he and DJay are very much alike.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Paramount Classics