Hustle & Flow
Rated R, 114 min. Directed by Craig Brewer. Starring Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson, DJ Qualls, Paula Jai Parker, Elise Neal, Ludacris, Isaac Hayes.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 22, 2005
In a true starmaking turn, Terrence Howard commands the screen as the Memphis pimp DJay, who dreams of making his mark in the world and living a better life. His dream is amorphous at first, as we learn in a powerful opening monologue delivered to his top earner Nola (Manning) as they sit in his unair-conditioned old beater while waiting for a trick to bite. But the frustration with his dead-end career oozes from DJay much like the beads of sweat that pour from his body in the sweltering Memphis summer. That swelter and the movie’s grassroots honesty, along with its outstanding ensemble performances, is what elevates the basic corniness of this movie’s "pimp with a dream" plot into one of universal recognition. DJay is a character like Brooklyn’s Tony Manero striving to be king of the discos in Saturday Night Fever, or Philadelphia’s Rocky, or the players in an old MGM musical who must battle the odds before their talent is recognized and their fortunes turn. It’s a winning formula, and when done right like it is here, it transcends the clichés and moves audiences. When happenstance causes DJay to come into possession of a pocket keyboard and then later to run into an old high school buddy Key (Anderson, in a note-perfect switch from his usual comedic roles), who is now the soundman for a church choir, it focuses DJay’s urge toward self-expression. He starts writing down rhymes with the aim of turning them into raps and enlists Key’s help in converting a room in his house into a poor man’s recording studio. (And anyone who’s tried this will delight in watching them stapling egg cartons to the walls for soundproofing and bargaining with neighbors to eliminate the interfering hum from nearby electronic devices.) In turn, Key brings on the church pianist Shelby (Qualls), a pot-smoking white guy whose mastery of the beatbox is just one of the movie’s unexpected pleasures. DJay’s plan is to get a demo to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a Memphis-born rapper who’s hit it big and is returning to town for a private Fourth of July party at a local club run by Arnel (Hayes), a pot-buying client of DJay’s who tips him off. Hayes and Ludacris are both great, and there’s a carefree nonchalance to their conversations with DJay that lend the movie an extra sense of authenticity. The women, however, do not fare as well in writer-director Brewer’s script. Henson plays Shug, barefoot and pregnant but devoted to DJay, who learns to sing the chorus on one of his songs; Parker plays a shrewish hooker who gets violently tossed out of their crib for dissing DJay’s dreams, thereby freeing up her room for a recording studio; Manning, despite her trashy appearance, is DJay’s top (and if truth be told, only) earner, who absorbs some of DJay’s lessons about self-reliance and is reborn as his "primary investor"; and Neal plays Key’s church-lady wife, who has a charitable turn of heart. Hustle & Flow has a few lagging moments in the middle, and some third-act melodramatics that are just a bit too much, but they are easy to forgive because Howard and the others are just so watchable. The insistent bass hook of the Memphis crunk rap also drives the movie and practically challenges the viewer to resist nodding along to DJay’s tunes, "Whoop That Trick" and "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp." The movie’s ability to sway us over to its lyrics may be its ultimate tribute to the powers of art and self-expression. (See http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-07-22/screens_feature2.html of this week’s Screens section for an interview with the movie’s writer-director, Craig Brewer.)