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"Not once does it lose sight of the universal thread that brings it all together."
"Howard is nothing short of spectacular, portraying DJay with enough conviction and concern to make you empathize."
"There is not a lot of bling bling in this surprisingly engaging and inspired effort."
Hustle & Flow  

Cast

DJay: Terrence Howard
Key: Anthony Anderson
Nola: Taryn Manning
Shug: Taraji P. Henson INTERVIEW
Lexus: Paula Jai Parker
Yevette: Elise Neal
Arnel: Isaac Hayes
Shelby: DJ Qualls
Skinny: Ludacris
Review August 2005

The opening monologue is difficult to shake. "It's like all my days, I've been hearing this beat in my head, man. It's like its pounding. But sometimes it gets real soft. And it can't be stopped." Straightforward and true, DJay's philosophical ramblings reveal more about the depth of his character than you could ever expect from a drug dealer or a pimp. But it's precisely what writer/director Craig Brewer had in mind for this fascinating portrait of a hustler trying to find his way out of the ghetto, trying to find his own voice, and trying to capitalize on a dream. The dream, for the aspiring DJay, is to succeed as a rapper, detailing the hard and fast life on the streets of Memphis. Under the influence of the charismatic indie phenom, Terrence Howard, "Hustle & Flow" succeeds where so many fall short. It builds characters that are smart, yet vulnerable. And likable in spite of their flaws. Unpretentious and socially aware, the film speaks on many different levels, about poverty and social class, stereotypes and race. But not once does it lose sight of the universal thread that brings it all together.

DJay is a low level pimp and drug dealer with next to no future. Eking out a living in the Memphis ghettos, he scrounges up enough cash (mainly by pimping out Nola) to support his three live in girlfriends: Nola, Shug, and Lexus. It's not much of a life and as DJay enters somewhat of a mid-life crisis, he realizes that things need to change. After all, says DJay, "My daddy's heart gave out on him when he was my age." Always one with a knack for words and philosophy, he vows to change his ways. And one day, after reluctantly trading a junkie for a miniaturized keyboard, it changes unexpectedly. DJay becomes infatuated with making music. He begins to jot down lyrics and rhymes, mixing them with his own beats. Then he runs into an old high school friend named Key, a music coordinator at a local church. And just like old times, the two establish a unique kinship, one that inspires Key's own dreams.

Together, along with support from Nola and Shug and a local beat master named Shelby, they build their own recording studio and settle down to record a demo. Turning words of street life survival into heavy, soulful crunk, the music flows almost naturally. But is it coming together quick enough? The completion of the demo must be coordinated with the arrival of a local boy turned hip-hop star named Skinny Black. Black is in town visiting Arnel, a friend and local club owner, who also happens to be close friends with DJay. Believing in DJay's potential, Arnel arranges a sit down meeting between the two, hoping that Black will take a liking to DJay, help him land a record deal, and get him out of the ghetto. But good intentions are often wrought with difficulty, as the chance encounter turns into something much more complicated than DJay ever imagined.

"Hustle & Flow" is an unexpected high. And what separates it from any other in the so-called gangsta genre is that it is truly universal. Contrary to initial appearances, this is not your typical movie about pimps and hos. It is not about a hard knock life or gangsters in the ghetto. Rather, this is a story about a dream, the importance of having dreams, and the contagious nature of them. It's about rising above an intolerable situation to become something better, regardless of the circumstances. And it is that universal feeling that writer/director Craig Brewer hones with precision that makes the film so enticing. After all, it's a dream that inspires DJay, a Memphis hustler who foresees a better life. And it is a dream that invigorates him to follow his own "flow," a passion to make music by any means necessary. These relatable attributes are the foundation for great storytelling. And because Brewer understands and applies them, the film becomes more than a typical street life story.

Comprised of a brilliant ensemble, "Hustle & Flow" is led by rising sensation Terrence Howard. In one of the most understated performances of the year, Howard portrayed a humiliated Hollywood television director in "Crash," Paul Haggis' complex morality tale about racial stereotyping. But his role in "Hustle & Flow" is even more ingenious. Submerged in character, Howard is nothing short of spectacular, portraying DJay with enough conviction and concern to make you empathize. As an atypical hustler, DJay truly cares about the girls he pimps. And his intentions are so pure and benign that they are felt and touched by all. Equal to the task is Anthony Anderson, who has evolved from a scene-stealing comic into a very solid, dramatic actor. Scene after scene, Anderson's Key reminds us of the difficulty in pursuing failed dreams without the support of the one you love. And lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention two supporting performances that are simply divine. As the working girl, Nola, Taryn Manning shows the varying degrees of emotional fortitude that come from being a discontented runaway. Her tenacity is underestimated as is that of Taraji P. Henson's Shug, a helpless, yet loyal live in girlfriend who becomes transformed in a loving way.

Yet, it should come as no surprise that out of all the characters that stand out in "Hustle & Flow," perhaps the most influential is the city of Memphis itself. Full of perspiration, misplaced hope, sinful diversions, and a grim lifestyle, Memphis is a depressive character that weighs down on the others. In fact, the only way to escape its nasty grip is through artistic expression, through some form of music. The birthplace of rock n' roll, Memphis permeates with a variety of sounds from country to gospel to the aggressive, hip-hop style known as crunk. Central to the film, crunk is filled with raw emotional energy, lyrics about street life and southern culture. And it's the style that DJay adopts as his own, not only giving him something to believe in, but also providing him with a therapeutic release. "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" is soulful and catchy; "Whoop That Trick" is heavy and hard, while "Hustle and Flow" is a smooth, honest confessional. Overall, it's amazing how the setting and the music translate and alter the characters.

Even though much of what happens in "Hustle & Flow" is unexpected and engaging, unlimited in its pursuit of the all-important dream, there is a bit of disappointment in how it finishes. After drawing us in with an unconventional and original portrait of a pimp with a conscience, the third act of the film unravels almost as an obligation rather than an organic outpouring of honesty. And it leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths. Of course, that is not to say that this is a formula film because it is far from that. Rather, the final scenes of the film are less engaging because they fall prey to the public's perception of the gangster rapper. And after Skinny Black's brief encounter with DJay, the end result is sadly predictable, subscribing to the mantra of street credibility - that it can only be attained through acts of violence and jail time. In other words, you know what will happen to DJay, you know what will happen to his tape, and you know what will happen in the months afterwards because it doesn't deviate from that stereotype.

But if you put the ending aside, "Hustle & Flow" is a surprisingly engaging and inspired effort. It's not flashy; there is no bling bling. It simply is what it is - a realistic and original story of one man giving up everything to pursue his dream. And how his dream positively influences those around him. The fact that the main character happens to be a street hustler, that it takes place in the ghetto, and that it deals with gangster rap may dissuade many from seeing it. But quite frankly, it's those qualities that give this film a life of its own. What Craig Brewer has done is depict such a strenuous story with intelligence and social conscience, a film that shows impoverished individuals who are so much smarter than the conditions in which they work...if they only were given the opportunity for something greater, they could rise above it all. It's a sad commentary on the world we live in today, that such situations still exist, even in the grassroots of America in well-known places like Memphis. Yet, the upside is that hopes and dreams can still be found in those places, even if you're a pimp caught somewhere between the "Hustle & Flow."



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