A correction was made to this review on Jan. 25, 2005.
“Hustle & Flow” is a feel-good story about a man finding his artistic voice and fulfilling his dream in the rough world of pimps, hos and druggies in Memphis. The incurably optimistic storyline and almost gee-whiz enthusiasm interacts in curious ways with the gritty reality of the characters’ lives and the rap lyrics, but writer-director Craig Brewer has given his second feature film a vibrant pulse amplified by an outstanding cast led by Terrence Howard in what should be a star-making performance. With the new Paramount regime having paid $9 million for distribution rights after the first Sundance screening, pic is assured of a major promo push. Success with rap-friendly audiences seems a lock, so Par’s big challenge lies in getting the film to crossover to a more general public.
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Coming into Sundance, aptly titled entry had a little-picture-that-could aura surrounding it, with Brewer having approached Stephanie Allain with his script after reading of her successes in hyping the careers of John Singleton and Robert Rodriguez. The two of them hustled the project around Hollywood for more than two years before Singleton personally arranged financing for the four-week shoot.
That same positive attitude drives the film itself, in which a sharp-looking and sharp-minded black man, Djay (Howard), born and raised in difficult circumstances in Memphis, is deeply conflicted over his career as a small-time pimp and dope dealer and his desire to express himself and achieve something better.
An eccentric figure in his curled hair and patched-together car, this hustler can flow on any subject, as proven in a captivating opening sequence in which Djay delivers a brilliant monologue to one of his girls, Nola (Taryn Manning), about what sets mankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, a speech orgs like PETA would do well to ponder.
Howard’s delivery mixes brooding thoughtfulness with emotional immediacy in a manner that recalls the young Brando. Unfortunately, the philosophical tendencies suggested here rep something of a red herring, as the script doesn’t follow up on this personality trait, but rather on his desire to break out of his going-nowhere lifestyle by recording some rap tracks.
Core of the film concentrates on the nuts-and-bolts of how Djay accomplishes this, and in the process clarifies and demystifies the creation of rap in a detailed way that’s engaging for outsiders. By chance acquiring a used Casio keyboard, Djay bumps into an old high school buddy, Key (Anthony Anderson), a married man who records church music, the experience of which, in a moving scene, touches Djay deeply.
Key brings in a creative musician with a beat machine, skinny white boy Shelby (DJ Qualls), and together, in long sequences that depict the setbacks and breakthroughs inherent in group artistic endeavors, they begin finding the music to put to the rhymes Djay has scribbled down. Underlying these scenes is a let’s-put-on-a-show feeling that dates back at least as far as the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals.
Djay’s domestic life is dominated by the three funky women who live with him. One, sassy-mouthed stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), he finally kicks out after she disses him once too often, but the other two quickly pitch in to help Djay’s dream come true.
Nola, Djay’s main breadwinner, keeps turning tricks to keep money rolling in. The prominently pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson), who loves Djay, contributes by singing the key hooks to the songs. Although narrative momentum sags somewhat during this long mid-section (pic might benefit from slight trimming) and some of it becomes a bit hokey — even Key’s decorous, devout wife eventually comes on board — pic is never in danger of losing the audience’s involvement.
Djay is driven by the knowledge that, on July 4, big time rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), will be returning to his home town to hang at a local club run by a mutual friend (Isaac Hayes). Djay intends to lay his demo tape on Skinny that night.
Eruption of violence thereafter feels disruptive dramatically; it would have been far more satisfying if there had been a way of bringing the picture to its climax without the overused crutch of guns. All the same, the bloody incident brings matters to their desired inspiring thematic result.
Film itself exhibits an undeniable confidence that permeates its every aspect. With his ease of delivery in the service of his character’s unstoppable determination, Howard dominates with a magnetic performance that will define him with audiences after a varied array of supporting turns in recent years.
Playing a dramatic role, Anderson brings irrepressible humor to a wife-tamed man who asserts himself when push comes to shove. Qualls is of comparable value as a funny looking kid whose self-deprecating attitude disarms any reservations his colleagues might hold about his potential contributions. Manning, Henson and Parker have their moments, and Ludacris brings essential credibility to a figure whose status within the narrative would be hard to fake.
Shot on 16mm, pic does nothing to glamorize the grungy Memphis locations. Musical elements are energizing and ever-present.