HUSTLE & FLOW (Craig Brewer, 2005)
Smalltime Memphis pimp DJay dreams of a better life in HUSTLE & FLOW. Living in one of the Dirty South and crunk hot spots, DJay, smoothly played by Terrence Howard, believes his ticket out is cutting a hip hop track. He hooks up with Key (Anthony Anderson), a producer and former classmate, and beat master Shelby (DJ Qualls) to tell of his streetwise experiences. DJay then hopes to get the tape to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a former acquaintance who ascended to rap stardom.
HUSTLE & FLOW writer-director Craig Brewer possesses considerable formal skill and a great ability for capturing location. The grainy film stock soaks up the heat and grime of Memphis. The visual style, down to the title font, references the 70s blaxploitation films that give a gritty vibe to an otherwise conventional showbiz tale. For all of its earthiness, though, it’s a slick and deceptive bit of filmmaking that uses its environmental and movie authenticity—it feels real based on other film portrayals of these character types—to scam audiences into accepting DJay as a good guy.
Credit for DJay’s seductiveness goes to Howard, a gifted actor whose unadorned performance oozes out of him like sweat from the moist southern summer. There’s a natural impulse to hope the best for DJay, not only because he’s the protagonist but also because Howard plays the part with total conviction and urgency.
HUSTLE & FLOW navigates into problematic territory when it swallows DJay’s woeful story as tragedy intended to make him sympathetic. It isn’t fair to expect a film about a pimp to take a feminist perspective. Where Brewer gets himself into trouble isn’t who and what his characters are—pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers—but in how he directs the audience to feel about them. It may be hard out there for a pimp, as the hook of DJay’s single proclaims, but it doesn’t redeem him. The film swoons when DJay and Shug (Taraji P. Henson), one of his pregnant hookers, clinch before he goes out in hopes of convincing Skinny Black to pass his tape to the right industry people. Nevermind that he has treated her with contempt through much of HUSTLE & FLOW and she is portrayed as a simple-minded woman who bends to his commands. Shug is the film’s female ideal, and their embrace is it’s romantic peak. Overlooked in all this is DJay’s casual cruelty in putting the prostitute Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and her child on the street when she dares to challenge him.
Even more troublesome is how HUSTLE & FLOW presents the producer’s wife, Yevette (Elise Neal). She’s the only woman in the film who isn’t a hooker, yet from the outset she’s viewed as an overbearing nag. (Her first appearance is a dinner scene with Key in which she prattles on and on about work while he ignores her but humorously nods his head in affirmation.) Yevette turns out to be just another obstacle in DJay’s path to success until she does a complete turnaround and brings sandwiches to the pimp’s house during the recording sessions. Coming from a middle class existence, her behavior and blithe acceptance of the circumstances ring deeply false.
In spite of its dubious intent, HUSTLE & FLOW can be quite absorbing. The film works best when showing the intricacies of building tracks. The scenes with DJay, Key, and Shelby in the makeshift recording studio sizzle, and the songs are relentlessly catchy.
Like DJay, Brewer exhibits talent for what he does, but too much of it is in service of hogwash.
(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)