It’s always exciting to see an actor come into his own. After years of supporting work in films such as Dead Presidents, Big Momma’s House and Glitter, Terrence Howard has suddenly begun to get noticed. His attention-grabbing performances in Ray and this year’s Crash put him on a hot streak that continues with Hustle & Flow. Howard plays DJay, a small-time Memphis pimp/drug dealer. Living with him in his tiny, rundown house are his “girls”: the sassy Nola (Taryn Manning), and Shug (Taraji P. Henson), who got pregnant to one of her tricks. When a third girl walks out, DJay finds himself in even more of a financial pinch than he’s already in. Since Shug is in no condition to work, it’s up to Nola (and the occasional drug deal) to bring in the cash.
During one transaction, DJay trades some dope for a small electronic keyboard. Having long harbored dreams of improving his lot in life, he sees the musical instrument not as a drug trade, but as the first step toward that goal. Not long after, he runs into an old school classmate, Key (Anthony Anderson), who happens to have a ton of recording equipment that he uses for church ceremonies and legal depositions. DJay convinces Key to work with him on putting down some hip-hop tracks. Key recruits a young white guy named Shelby (DJ Qualls) who is a whiz with a drum machine. Together, they staple plastic drink holders to one wall of DJay’s house (for soundproofing) and create music.
What they come up with is good, but not good enough. Unable to afford a better microphone, DJay convinces Nola to perform sexual services on a music store owner. She protests, yet he has a way of manipulating her into thinking that she’s working for the greater good. When Key suggests that their songs need a hook, a nervous Shug is recruited to sing. After laying down a few solid tracks, DJay makes a plan to slip his demo tape to a famous hometown rapper named Skinny Black (Ludacris), who is returning to Memphis for the July 4th holiday.
The last great movie about rap music was the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile. Like that film, Hustle & Flow follows a hard-luck character who believes he is just under the surface of musical success. But whereas 8 Mile focused on the world of “rap battles,” this one explores the impact of the homemade demo tape. Rap – unlike most styles of popular music – works as its own kind of farm club, reaching down and occasionally plucking someone from obscurity. Most of today’s big name rappers record songs “featuring” an unknown, who then builds buzz before releasing his/her own CD. Perhaps this is why hip-hop holds so much hope for so many; it’s not inconceivable that a pimp/drug dealer like DJay could leave his old life behind and start a new one as a major music artist. Watching the character plan and work toward this goal makes for a compelling two hours. The film feels very authentic in the way it shows these characters slaving away at the demo tape that might open the door to a better life. The future for them could lie in a little piece of audio tape, so there’s a lot at stake.
The title Hustle & Flow represents the two things that are essential to make it in the rap music business: you have to have the ability to formulate good rhymes (flow), but you also need to have a certain amount of con artistry (hustle). Lots of aspiring rappers tirelessly hit clubs and radio stations conniving to get their music played. Of the ones that make it, many exaggerate their backgrounds in order to gain street cred (something Ja Rule has repeatedly been accused of). DJay proves to be adept at both sides of the coin. He has something to say and a natural way with words, plus he knows how to play people to get what he wants. DJay spends a lot of time telling everyone that he knew Skinny Black “back in the day.” How well he knew the famous rapper is initially unclear, but his conviction is enough to earn a face-to-face meeting. For him to succeed, both his hustle and his flow with have to be flawless.
Terrence Howard is nothing short of mesmerizing in the central role. He creates a character who is endlessly determined; DJay will not let anything stand in the way of reaching his dream. (This is proven conclusively in the story’s final act.) Because the actor brings a wealth of intelligence to the role, we believe that DJay is a guy who is burning to say something. We never learn how his life ended up as it did, but that doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that DJay isn’t going to stop until he achieves his goal. Howard is perfect for the role, giving a performance that is fierce and star-making.
The supporting cast adds a lot to the flavor of the film. Anthony Anderson (Kangaroo Jack, Malibu’s Most Wanted) loses that comic screechiness that can occasionally make him grating on-screen. He plays Key as a guy who is bored in his marriage and unfulfilled by his job. Only when he starts making music with DJay does he truly come alive, which ultimately improves things with his wife. Taryn Manning (Crossroads, crazy/beautiful) is also really strong playing Nola, who sees everyone around her chasing dreams and decides she wants to find a dream for herself. Aside from Howard’s, my favorite performance comes from Taraji Henson. As the pregnant Shug, she projects vulnerability that slowly morphs into confidence. When Shug first sits at the microphone to sing, she can barely squeak out the notes. Then Shelby and Key give her a little confidence boost and she starts belting out the song, much to her own surprise.
Hustle & Flow was written and directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Craig Brewer. When he was turned down by all the studios, John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) stepped in as producer and helped raise the money. That seems appropriate given the events that take place in the story. After it was finished, the movie rocked this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. MTV Films and Paramount Classics paid $9 million for the right to distribute Hustle & Flow. Obviously there are parallels between the film and the story behind it. And that’s part of what makes Brewer’s picture so good. There are lots of talented people in the world who have something worthwhile to say through artistic means. Isn’t it great to live in a time when a Craig Brewer or a DJay can pick up a microphone or a camera and let their voices out?
( 1/2 out of four)
Hustle & Flow is rated R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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