- He aint no Fly Guy: DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Nola (Taryn Manning) check out the gospel scene.
*Hustle and Flow (R)
Carmike 10, Tinseltown
Every few years a film comes along that knocks Hollywood on its ass and demonstrates how pointless and craven most films are today. Hustle and Flow is one of them, and its writer/director, Craig Brewer, makes a debut on par with Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
Brewer proves himself an astute storyteller with this yarn about a lowlife Memphis pimp named DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard) who comes to recognize that he isn't going anywhere beyond the seat of his Chevy Caprice.
Brewer also shows a deep understanding of music and Southern society, making a clear connection between Dirty South crunk (a southern-fried variant of rap) and the legacy of blues music -- and, by extension, the lives of poor people.
Through most of the film we see DJay in his squalid elements: sitting below bridges in his hooptie with his white prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning), picking up his other working lady, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), at a strip club, or hanging at his ghetto flophouse with the pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson).
This real-life tableau is accentuated with masterful music production. Bass-heavy and bluesy tracks rumble across the film, electrifying the languid camera transitions, so be sure to see Hustle in a theater with a quality sound system.
When DJay learns that Skinny Black (rapper Ludacris), a local boy-turned-rap celebrity, will be in town for the Fourth of July, his head starts spinning ideas. Skinny Black's success makes DJay's midlife crisis that much worse. But when he runs into Key (Anthony Anderson), a friend he used to make hip-hop mix tapes with in high school, he finds opportunity.
If DJay can cut a demo tape with Key, he thinks, he can pass it on to Skinny Black and get a shot at a better life. Key enlists his white-boy producer-friend Shelby (DJ Qualls), an erstwhile vending machine stocker, to build the beats (which actually are creations of artists like Three Six Mafia). Shug is enlisted to sing the hooks.
Howard's brilliant performance as a profane, chain-smoking but charismatic and crudely philosophical pimp is both believable and moving, as good as Benicio Del Toro's in Traffic. His depiction was so central to Hustle that Brewer and producer John Singleton delayed the film for years to cast him instead of a big-name actor. In the end, Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious) put up the production money himself.
The movie's biggest hitch is that Shug and Nola remain subordinate and exploited throughout the film, and the lyrics DJay likes to spit don't seem to indicate that there's anything wrong with slapping his women. It could be argued that Brewer (who is white) is venturing into exploitation territory, and his casting of Isaac Hayes as a bartender would back that up.
But these factors more properly are chalked up to realistic depiction. Life almost never is what Hollywood says it's like. And that's why Brewer's resistance of Hollywood control is a good thing. Glam actors and PC plot rendering would have destroyed this film. As is, the results are thrilling, and Hustle and Flow easily is one of the year's best films.
-- Dan Wilcock