A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #13


2005, R, 114 mins.

Djay: Terrence Howard / Key: Anthony Anderson / Nola: Taryn Manning / Shug: Taraji P. Henson / Lexus: Paula Jai Parker / Yevette: Elise Neal / Arnel: Isaac Hayes / Shelby: DJ Qualls / Skinny Black: Ludacris

Written and directed by Craig Brewer

HUSTLE AND FLOW achieves a virtual cinematic miracle.  It completely involved me in a subject matter that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever - hip-hop music - and makes it fascinating and intriguing. 

It takes the world of hip-hop and street pimping and sort of meshes them effortlessly together.  The film, superficially at least, is an emblematic rags to riches tale of one man’s journey from a nobody to a somebody.  There are distinctive echoes of a similar story (ROCKY, anyone?), but HUSTLE AND FLOW is a film that does not pander down to its audience, nor does it cheapen the material to allow for more mainstream digestion.  The film is raw, emotionally real and powerful, and evokes such a sensation of verisimilitude in its characters and setting that it sort of rises above conventional clichés.  This is a low-key drama that’s equal parts gritty, seedy, sensitive, and uplifting. 

The fact that its hero (if you can call him that) is a depraved and misogynistic street pimp is kind of beside the point.  Can’t desperate and vile street hustlers have noble dreams and aspirations as well?  HUSTLE AND FLOW believes so, and it creates one of the most layered and invigorating characters in recent movie memory in Djay, played in the best performance of 2005 by Terrance Howard.  The film does such a transcending job of suspending the viewer in its dark, sweaty, grungy, and desolate climate, which is only supported by the sheer conviction and power of Howard’s performance. 

Pimps, it could be argued, are one of the lowest, degenerate forms of life on earth.  The brilliant thing about HUSTLE AND FLOW is that Djay is so completely self-aware about this very sentiment.  “I'm here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime,” he exclaims at one point, “and I ain't even got a cent man.”  Djay is a persona that instills such a wide range of emotions.  You feel such simultaneous pity, hostility, sympathy, and remorse for him.  He’s a pimp because it pays the bills, but it’s something he’s not necessarily proud of.

More than anything, HUSTLE AND FLOW does a virtuoso job of completely immersing us its world.  Populated by people of every undesirable form in the dirty, run down, and shabby streets of a scorchingly hot Memphis, HUSTLE AND FLOW breathes with the veracity of a documentary.  This film makes you want to immediately rush home and crank on your air conditioners.  The home that the hustler and prostitutes live in is unmercifully hot and muggy.  Fans permeate every inch of their dilapidated house.  Characters perspire endlessly.  The environment of the film is what acts as a catalyst for the characters' inner torment and frustration.  Somewhat like the masterful western, THE PROPOSITION, HUSTLE AND FLOW creates such an out-of-body experience in terms of getting the feel of the more slimy and unsavory aspects of the southern hood.  The sheer amount of discomfort the film embellishes makes its underlining Cinderella story that much more rousing.  Anyone that wants to get out of this kind of world deserves our commendation.

Aside from its astounding production values, HUSTLE AND FLOW is a terrifically mounted character drama that allows for even it’s least desirable characters the time to speak frankly and honestly.  Djay is no exception and - as demonstrated in his opening scene - he pontificates on the nature of man to his prostitute.  It’s a brilliantly executed monologue where the camera ever so slowly reveals Djay and finally shows the subject he’s preaching to.  Djay may not be a well-spoken man (he speaks mostly in broken English), but he is most definitely a smart and introspective person that has feelings and opinions on things.  That fact that he can improvise at the drop of a coin on any philosophical subject is his strongest selling point.  He’s a pimp and this emerges as immediately sad because, with his orator skills and sharp intellect, he could have gone to other places if the opportunities were there.  There is so much conviction and pain in his voice. When he speaks, we listen, even if we don't like what we're hearing.

HUSTLE AND FLOW follows an unquestionable and traditional three-act structure.  The first section introduces us to all of the main principles and their situation.  After the great opening monologue, we become intimate eyewitnesses to Djay’s sleazy and sordid world of pimping.  We are quickly introduced to Djay and all of the women that work under him.  He shares his house (which looks like it could implode at any moment) with three hookers, all of whom have distinctively different ties with him.  First, there is Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who is the feisty, cocky, and pugilistic hooker that seems to take great pleasure in arguing with Djay as much a possible.  Secondly, there is the much more calm and reserved Shung (in a wonderfully sensitive performance by Taraji P. Henson), who is pregnant and does not walk the streets anymore.  She secretly loves Djay and he – even if he does not instantly reveal it – reciprocates similar feelings back to her.  Then there is Nola (Taryn Manning), perhaps the more depressing of the three hookers, mainly because of her age and naivety.  She’s young, blond, and white, which makes her Djay's biggest cash grab.

Nola occupies one of the film’s more interesting character dynamics.  Djay is sort of a dodgy father figure to the young, troubled girl.  He goes on long speeches about the nature of man and how men in general are analogous to dirty dogs, but he nevertheless makes Nola do crude and volatile things because of their joint profession.  Djay is not a man to be admired for this, but his “abuse” of Nola stops at pimping.  He’s an atypical hustler in the sense that he never physically or sexually abuses his women (Nola included).  Yet, Nola becomes a bit of a muse that sort of grabs a hold of Djay’s secret ambitions.  “I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing," she lashes out at him at one point.  “Do ya think I wanna too,” he quickly responds.

Djay plays the role of a street pimp, but there is no denying that his heart simply is not in it at all.  I think this is what makes him such an easily identifiable and empathetic character.  There is a fury and desperation that flows through him.  He needs to pimp, but he does not want to.  He wants to better his life, which sort of keeps pulling him away from good opportunities like a noose around his neck.   He’s a slick and passionate man that has one singular dream: to be a popular hip-hop artist.  When he was in high school he had a brief acquaintance to Skinny Black (played by Ludacris), who went on to become a hugely successful rap artist.  Djay has an epiphany when he discovers that Black is returning home for a private party.  If only he could record something and get a demo tape out to him, then maybe…just maybe…Djay could have a shot at the big time. 

This sets up the film's second – and intrinsically most involving and captivating – act, where Djay enlists in the help of a local church-going music producer named Key (Anthony Anderson) and a skinny and unassuming white key boardist named Shelby (DJ Qualls).  Key is, obviously, not very lukewarm to the idea of a pimp hustling his way into his nice, conservative middle class lifestyle that he shares with his loving wife.  Yet, when he hears some of what Djay has scribbled down on his note pads, he sees some definite potential.  The journey towards seeing this potential and actually crafting out a demo reel is so involving; it made me look at hip-hop and music in a whole new light.  HUSTLE AND FLOW gets the details just right.  There is a scene where the men are shown stapling cardboard egg containers to soundproof the walls of one of the rooms of Djay’s home.  Then there is an inspired moment when Shelby uses his instincts and gets Shung to sing the backup lyrics of one of Djay’s favourite songs.  The film instinctively knows that creating music does not happen instantly.  It’s a grueling and tiring progression of trial and error.  More that any film I’ve seen about music, HUSTLE AND FLOW understands this difficult process.  This second act is the undeniable heartbeat of the film.

After the demo is completed the film spirals towards its third act where the confident and assured Djay gets dressed up in his best threads and goes to see Skinny Black.  What’s surprising is the fact that the film does not go for an easy, conventional payoff between Djay and his idol.  That would be the road most traveled approach.  What’s intriguing here is, despite Djay’s swagger and conviction, he really has such an incredible amount of tunnel vision about this encounter.  He seems to assume that (a) Black will remember who he is and (b) that Black will easily agree to help the fledging rap star.  It's disheartening and sad to see how this act unfolds because Djay does just about everything incorrectly, which makes any redemption he could have after the fact that much more potent.

The heavy load of HUSTLE AND FLOW is completely planted on Terrance Howard’s shoulders.  What’s amazing about the film is how it does not go out of its way to sugarcoat this pimp.  He is not a persona that instantly inspires our support.  He’s a hustler of women, a drug dealer, and often resorts to violence when things don’t go his way.  Yet, he’s a man of ambition and understanding about his terrible vocation that he has chosen and his fiery determination and will to take a different path eventually inspires our support.  The film is hyper authentic in terms of showing us his life, warts and all, but what Howard does with the role is ingenious.  He digs deep into Djay and provides such a layered and multi-faceted creation.  He lets out emotions and feelings that similar characters in lesser films would never reveal.  When we see him in the opening act we want to hate Djay.  During the second act, where we bare witness to him slaving away at his demo reel, we want to see him succeed so he can escape his deplorable lifestyle.  The character of Shung helps in this process.  Her eyes are windows to her own wounded soul and to her own aspirations of wanting the love of her life make things better for the both of them.

Howard has emerged as one of the finest actors working in contemporary cinema.  Looking at his resume for 2005 alone should speak for itself.  The emotional spectrum and variety of his work is astoundingly broad.  He gave another of the year’s best performances in Paul Haggis’s equally gritty and naturalistic morality play, CRASH.  He played the character of the successful Hollywood TV director that gets humiliated by his wife when she is abused by a racist cop.  After seeing him in HUSTLE AND FLOW and to bare witness to the incredible arc that his performance takes in it, it’s remarkable to know that this is the same actor that was in CRASH.  The two characters could not be any different; one is cultured and refined, whereas the other was the polar opposite.  Yet, the way Howard can fluently modulate and embody himself in these divergent roles reveals what a talent he is.  Both Djay and the director characters are dissimilar, but Howard plays both with a soulful, heartfelt sincerity. 

With a breakthrough performance by the great Terrance Howard in the lead role, with vigorously mounted and realistic urban production values, and with a terrifically crafted script that speaks of personal ambition and redemption, HUSTLE AND FLOW emerges as one of 2005’s most surprisingly penetrating and authoritative films.  Its grit and emotional rawness allows for it to rise above the conventional formulas of these types of underdog pictures and instead provides a deeply nuanced character study.  The film is revealing and insightful in how it peels back the layers of an outwardly odious street pimp and makes him something beyond the cartoonish caricature he could have been.  Howard’s street hustler is amoral, but his eagerness to better his life makes him moral.  HUSTLE AND FLOW is a fiercely ambitious amalgamation of classic Hollywood Cinderella tales, 1970’s blaxploitation cinema, and the modern musical landscape of hip hop.  Whether you like the music or not, the film’s themes are universal.  It’s wise enough to know that – when the time presents itself – inner desire and anxiety can help people regain control of their lives.  Pimping ain’t easy, but neither is having a goal and carrying it forward to fruition.  HUSTLE AND FLOW understands that even people that occupy the lower echelon of the societal scale can also believe in the American Dream.


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