Hustle & Flow (2005): Starring Terrence Howard in Oscar Caliber Performance

Undoubtedly the most commercial (if not best) film at the 2005 Sundance Fest Dramatic Competition, Hustle & Flow is an enjoyable film that benefits from an interesting premise, great rap music, and splashy visual style (cinematographer Amelia Vincent was cited by the jury).

Nonetheless, the film suffers from a naive and simplistic philosophy of life (a vulgarized version of the American Dream), unwarranted plot points, radical changes of tone, and even misogyny in the way the movie treats the female characters, particularly in the first reel.

As written and directed by Craig Brewer, in his sophomore effort, this crowd-pleasing film bears some thematic resemblance to Marc Levin’s 1998 Slam, also film about a black criminal-artist directed by a white man, albeit with a much broader commercial appeal. Calculated and manipulative, in both the positive and negative senses of these terms, Hustle & Flow touches the right chords. The public screening (second showing of the film) I attended began with the director inspiring the audience to sing along and ended with enthusiastic response from a packed house. It was therefore no surprise when the movie won the Audience Award.

With the right handling and marketing, the first feature out of competition to be grabbed for theatrical distribution (grabbed by Paramount at the price tag of $9 million), Hustle & Flow could prove to be a hugely commercial feature with strong crossover potential. Though it is a very different movie, it could reach the same (unexpected) success of Boyz ‘N the Hood, the 1991 feature from John Singleton, who serves as the film’s financial backer and producer, and also a mentor figure to novice director Brewer.

Writer-director Craig Brewer was born in Virginia and spent his childhood in Memphis. He grew up writing and directing plays in school, ultimately landing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Missing the South, Brewer moved back to Memphis. After his father’s death, Brewer used the small inheritance to make his first feature. Shot on digital video, The Poor & The Hungry became a hit on the festival circuit and was later sold to IFC. Brewer’s next script, Hustle & Flow, was partly inspired by the experience of finding his own voice and the much collaboration it took to get his first film made.

Djay (Terrence Howard) is a hardworking pimp who spends most days in his parked Chevy philosophizing about life, fantasizing about future plans. He is a proficient pimp but he’s bad with handling money. He and his girls, including runaway Nola (Taryn Manning), make enough to get by.

Undergoing a mid-life crisis, Djay harbors dreams of recording his flow and becoming a respected rapper. When pot client and club owner Arnel (Isaac Hayes) tells Djay that local rapper turned mogul, Skinny Black (Ludacris), is rolling through town for the July Fourth celebrations, Djay agrees to hook Skinny up with primo weed.

Trading a Casio keyboard for a bag of weed, Djay bumps into Key (Anthony Anderson), an old friend from high school who records church choirs, Djay takes it as a sign that he should make a demo and get it to Skinny Black. He convinces Key to help him record his flow by telling him he knows Skinny and can get the tape to him. Key invites piano prodigy Shelby (DJ Qualls), one of the film’s few white characters, who brings his beat machine to the party.

Soon, Djay and entourage find themselves caught up in the excitement of making music. Even his girls contribute: The very pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) sings the hooks, and Nola turns tricks to finance Djay’s operation.

In the film’s harshest scene, back at home, stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) taunts Djay about his dream, which prompts him to cruelly toss her and her baby out of his house.

Djay and his motley crew finish their demo tape. On the big night, Shug gives Djay a necklace with his moniker–and a passionate kiss for luck–before heading off to his destiny. Whatever the outcome, Djay has corralled hope out of his team; Nola, Key, Shelby and Shug all benefit from his success.

At the club, Djay hustles Skinny Black with his gab and gives him the tape. Skinny promises to listen, because, as he puts it, “Everybody gotta have a dream,” which is the movie’s ideological message. Djay stops at the bar to thank Arnel for the hook up but his euphoria is spoiled when he discovers Skinny in the bathroom with his tape in the toilet.

Changing tones radically, the film gets excessively and unnecessarily violent. Angry, shocked and freaked out, Djay beats Skinny down, shoots his bodyguard and runs from the club. Later, he turns himself into the cops in front of his crew. However, in the midst of the chaotic arrest, before being sent to jail, Djay doesn’t neglect to command Nola “Be in charge,” namely, to get the demo played.

Last reel is set in prison. When Key visits Djay, he tells him that not only did Nola get the record played, but that it’s also blowing up on the radio. A montage sequence follows, in which all of the characters, in their various locations, are listening to the song, follows.

The film ends on a satisfying, but not entirely convincing, note, when Djay is released from jail after 11 months, and we are led to believe that his crew is waiting out there for him, ready to pick up where they left off.

In a funny and aptly ironic touch, the film depicts Djay on the way back to his cell. Two uniformed guards congratulate Djay on his track, and then ask him to listen to their demo tape. Utterly sympathetic, he takes the tape and agrees to listen to it, because, as in his own life, “Everybody gotta have a dream.”

The movie’s party scene was shot in the parking lot of Memphis landmark The Crystal Palace, where local hip-hop artists Yo Gotti and Al Kapone perform regularly. Like the cruising scene on Crenshaw in Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood, the scene shows a parking lot packed with cars.

The acting is uniformly good. As Djay, Howard, who has appeared in over thirty movies, acquits himself with a dominant, charismatic performance. He plays an interesting character full of contradictions. An “ordinary” pimp, Djay is dealing with life with the best gifts he’s got. He is handsome, he’s got the proverbial gift of gab, and he’s got a heart.

At first, Djay can’t allow emotion to compromise his situation. For him, the most important thing is survival. Djay is not particularly smart, but in the good old American tradition, he is blessed with a strong will power and the ability to change.

The movie’s central idea, Don’t pay attention to the top, look what you’ve got going on for you down, is naive and simplistic even if it captures the essence of Djay. He drives a blue car with a red panel and white silver chrome wheels. Indeed, despite the filmmakers’ intent to offer a fresh angle on pimps, Djay fits in the long tradition of screen pimps, especially the kind of which audiences saw during the height of Blackxploitation cinema in the 1970s.

Hustle & Flow is more effective in its depiction of the bizarre circumstances under which a new extended family, a community of amateur turned professional artists, comes into being. Djay and the three girls form a peculiar though intimate family, which later increases in size when Kay and Shelby join in. Like every family, Djay’s has to deal with issues of discipline, authority, survival, unity, happiness, and fulfillment.

More problematic is the film’s sexism and misogyny. In the first reel, the women are depicted as not-too-bright victims, commanded and slapped around by Djay. The pimp bosses around all the women as to where they need to go, or what they need to do. However, gradually, they begin to change. At first dominated, the women later begin to dominate the men with their skills and tricks, which takes care of the issue of misogyny but not sexism.