Rebirth Of The Crunk
Hustle & Flow begins with a tight shot of north Memphis pimp DJay (Terrence Howard) delivering a not terribly insightful explication of the differences between dogs and humans. (Dogs are intellectually inferior, but less anxious as a result.) Since we don't initially see who's being addressed, the scene promises a punch line, and when DJay concludes by asking his companion what he/she/it is going to do with his/her/its life, I seriously expected the camera to cut to a basset hound or some comparably comical canine breed. To my relief, the film defied my expectations, and would do so several more times. Part uplifting comedy, part bleak drama, part blaxploitation tribute, Hustle & Flow is silly and profound, breezy and wrenching; it switches gears like a 15-year-old learning to drive a stick, which isn't to say that director Craig Brewer doesn't know what he's doing. In that first scene DJay is actually lecturing Nola (Taryn Manning), the "snow bunny" in his small stable of prostitutes. She doesn't know what to do with her life. Neither does DJay, who's going through a midlife crisis as he reaches the thirtysomething age at which his dad died. Later Nola gets closer to puzzling out the answer for both of them and most of the film's other characters: "Not this!"
Eventually the "not this" for all involved is tied into DJay's bid for a second act as a rapper, an effort he hopes will be boosted by Skinny Black (Ludacris), a Memphis-bred superstar MC. Skinny is planning to come home for an Independence Day bash, for which DJay has been tapped to supply weed. DJay's hip-hop dreams are made possible when he runs into Key (Anthony Anderson), an old high school mate. Now working as a small-time recording engineer, Key is eventually coaxed into helping DJay make some demos. Before that, though, Key takes DJay and Nola to a church where he records a stately and affecting performance by a female gospel singer. DJay sits in a slouch with his arms draped over the edge of the pew, a somewhat impious pose that comes naturally to him, though he means no disrespect. During the scene, which comes fairly early in the movie, Hustle & Flow digs into deeper emotional terrain than its opening augurs, and announces itself as no ordinary genre film or ordinary film, period. A tear leisurely descends the right side of DJay's stricken face, and Brewer lingers on his visage. Howard is channeling some cavernous emotions, it seems, but quietly, which is appropriate: This is not a conversion or transformation scene; it's a scene about what it feels like when transformation no longer appears to be an option. Hustle dwells for a while in that rather hopeless state--and not superficially--which naturally makes things all the more intoxicating when transformation does seem within reason.
The church scene is also the first of three instances in which a woman pushes DJay closer to some kind of salvation. Any film in which the audience is asked to cheer on a pimp is inviting a gender critique: By all means, have at it. But Brewer, who also authored the screenplay and to a degree wrote himself into the lead, has drawn multifaceted and compelling female characters to match his loveable exploiter, and he and Howard largely succeed at making their hero both sympathetic and creepy. Not surprisingly given his profession, DJay falls for the movie's most submissive woman, the pregnant and devoted Shug (Taraji Henson); but then, we fall for her, too. Until an opportunity for some DIY session work opens up and gives her some extra confidence, Shug is skittish around DJay, and her jumpiness is infectious during a couple of tense scenes. Apparently, however, DJay is an inveterate bullshitter, but not a hitter; the movie would be more complex and probably more realistic if he were. And maybe, pardon the pun, Brewer is pandering. But he's out to make a complicated, not complicating film, and he needs us to root for this guy rather absolutely, or the Rocky-style music-biz story Hustle becomes falls apart.
For those trying to get a handle on crunk and its relatives, and for those already hooked on it, Hustle is your movie. It's a love letter to Southern rap, especially its raw grassroots manifestations, and it's an excellent depiction of the odd collaborations hip hop often engenders. Key and his socially conservative wife (Elise Neal) are living a comfortably middle-class life. The success or failure of his and DJay's demo doesn't seem life-and-death for the producer as it is for the rapper--though given the banality of many of Key's gigs (recording legal depositions, for instance), maybe it is. After the two turn a tiny bedroom in DJay's house of ill repute into a makeshift studio, Key recruits a third collaborator, Shelby (D.J. Qualls), a crunk-loving white boy ("Nah, he's just light-skinned," jokes Key) who dresses like a Mormon missionary, but cranks out hard beats and hooks as effortlessly as Lil Jon.
After a successful session and a few tokes on a joint, Shelby issues a speech about "hip hop coming home to the South" and crunk's musical and thematic parallels to blues. Brewer, who is white, is obviously poking fun at himself being the down, behind-the-scenes white guy on a mission to explain African-American culture. DJay and Key, also feeling mellow, indulge Shelby, and so do we, because he does genuinely seem to get it and believe that hip hop can still change the world for the better. As much as time permits, Hustle & Flow shows the often frustrating, sometimes rhapsodic process of producing music; the joy in the trio's first session together is nearly sexual, which is perhaps why they light up afterward. It also captures the hunger and excitement of an up-and-coming MC pouring his life into rhymes--a longer than average life in this case, since DJay is entering the rap game at the age when most artists are throwing in the towel. "It's not over for me," raps DJay in the chorus to one of his tunes, and the determination really is palpable. Not for a while have I seen the rebirth of idealism portrayed with such sincerity and passion.
Also in this issue: Home Brewer: Writer-director Craig Brewer talks about how a white man can make a personal movie about a black pimp by Rob Nelson
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.