Supposedly, gangsta rap and other aggressive forms of hip-hop don't glorify violence and misogyny. They just tell it like it is. Rap apologists have long argued that notorious songs like "Cop Killer" tell ugly stories only to accurately reflect the ugly nature of inner cities.
I'm not sure I swallow that justification, but the street-level, documentary-style ambitions of hip-hop find unexpected fulfillment in the remarkable feature film Hustle & Flow.
Writer/director Craig Brewer offers a harsh, credible portrayal of low-level Memphis criminality and reveals the importance hip-hop can play in "the Life." Hustle & Flow mixes a heady cocktail of crunk tunes and thuggish behavior to discover a fallen soul that craves redemption.
Played with soft-spoken menace by Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow's antihero DJay doesn't have a heart of gold. At first he scarcely seems to have any heart at all. We meet the small-time drug dealer and pimp peddling the body of young Nola (Taryn Manning) from the front seat of his car.
DJay lives with three women in a complex pecking order. Stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) earns most of the cash and is mother to DJay's infant son. Pregnant, shy Shug (Taraji P. Henson) cares for the baby while living at home on a prostitute's equivalent to maternity leave. Nola longs to quit hooking for stripping, but DJay keeps her on a tight leash. While the women see him as an alpha lion, we perceive him as closer to a jackal.
A series of coincidences, including a chance meeting with Key (Anthony Anderson), a high-school pal-turned-amateur music producer, rekindles DJay's love of creating music. He seizes on hip-hop as his last chance to escape a low-earning, dead-end life of crime.
Hustle & Flow doesn't dismiss DJay as an evil sadist who relishes his illegal activities. But it doesn't soft-sell his nature as a sexual predator, either. He's cruel but not violent to his "family": He hatefully kicks out Lexus and his son at the height of an argument, but never raises a hand to them. In both his autobiographical song lyrics and one-on-one conversations, he self-pityingly bemoans his modest hardships in front of the very women he casually exploits. Howard's performance, sensitive if not sympathetic, conveys a man driven not by bullying machismo but pervasive melancholy.
Brewer resorts to some sentimental touches, like the single tear that runs down DJay's face when he hears a gospel choir. But the transformative power of music is convincingly portrayed. When Key collaborates with DJay on songs, a spark seems to shoot through Howard's entire performance, as if the pimp has rediscovered something long dead inside himself.
Some of Hustle & Flow's most authentic, exciting moments take place in DJay's jerry-built home studio. The details feel as truthful as the liner notes of a self-produced CD. When Key staples fast-food drink-holders to the wall, he explains, "Poor man's sound-proofing." DJay pours years of rage and frustration into his would-be club tune, "Whoop That Trick," and it's got a helluva hook.
Mostly out of simple, selfish need - but with a smidgen of raised consciousness - DJay begins treating his stable of women more like human beings. When he needs a backup singer for his demo, he pressures Shug to sing with emotion. It's probably the first time he ever paid attention to her feelings, and it results in a thrilling moment of artistic creation. It dawns on DJay that to be a successful man, he'll have to be a better man.
DJay's personal evolution becomes increasingly engrossing, until he stakes his entire artistic career on whether his demo tape can win the favor of Skinny Black (Atlanta rapper Ludacris), a local boy-turned-hip-hop star. Before the rapper's private party, DJay preens full of false bravado - "I can pimp Skinny" - but we practically share his flop-sweat. Skinny, in his wraparound shades and gold teeth, proves an intimidating, arrogant personality not about to be played. The suspense proves nearly unbearable when DJay launches into his once-in-a-lifetime sales pitch. It's practically a mythic challenge, like solving the riddle of the sphinx.
Some critics have called Hustle & Flow a study in Horatio Alger/Rocky-type wish fulfillment (a charge more appropriately leveled at Eminem's 8 Mile, which has superficial similarities to Brewer's film). Lines like "Everybody's gotta have a dream" make a persistent refrain up until the final scene, but Hustle & Flow proves surprisingly ambivalent about creative ambition.
DJay's story reveals that self-actualization doesn't justify dirty deeds. Having a dream doesn't equal possessing talent. There's no inalienable right to creative stardom. Despite its sordid lifestyles and catchy musical performances, Hustle & Flow proves most intriguing when it challenges America's attitude toward achievement. In a pitch-perfect note of irony, DJay learns that one definition of success is that more people will try to hustle you, rather than the other way around.
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