Admittedly, I am not the ideal demographic for "Hustle and Flow", the new film about a Memphis pimp who dreams of becoming a rap singer. But because of the good reviews I have read, I decided to give the film a try.
"Hustle and Flow" written and directed by Craig Brewer, contains many good things. D Jay (Terrence Howard, "Crash"), is a low level pimp who doesn't seem to have his heart in it. He basically has two women, one who works the streets, Nola (Taryn Manning), a Caucasian woman with long extensions in her hair who is also getting tired of the life, and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who works nights at a strip club. All of these people live together in a small house with Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and Lexus's baby son. One day, D Jay runs into an old classmate, Key (Anthony Anderson) who makes a living recording church singers and court depositions. They get together and convert a room in D Jay's house into a makeshift recording studio. D Jay learns that Skinny Black (Ludacris), a former Memphis resident who is now a famous rapper, will be returning home to hold an annual Fourth of July party. D Jay decides that he wants to get his demo into Skinny Black's hands, so the famous rapper can help an old friend.
`Hustle and Flow" is filled with clichs (gangsta rappers with gold teeth, hookers with a heart of gold, etc.) and I don't know how much emotion anyone can invest in the story of a pimp who wants to become a famous rapper. But the film is very good due in large part to the performance by Terrence Howard. The role of D Jay is the polar opposite of the role he played in "Crash", an affluent Television director living in the San Fernando Valley. With these two performances, Howard has demonstrated that he has great ability, perhaps even untapped ability to portray a wide range of characters and become a great actor. He throws himself into the role, fully living the part. His dialect changes, his demeanor, his outlook. Howard conveys the depth and breadth of the characters knowledge and also his crisis with his current life. When he starts to lay down tracks in his make-shift studio, D Jay becomes slightly desperate and Howard conveys this in an emotional, believable way. D Jay is the central character and he is on screen in almost every scene. Howard's performance forces you to pay attention, to watch him.
But I have a hard time being empathetic towards a pimp who wants to become a rapper. The film really wants you to feel empathy towards him, to feel for his journey and the troubles in his life. But he's a PIMP! Why should we feel anything for him? Strangely, because of Howard's performance, I did begin to see his character was someone whom I might meet and actually become friends with. But he's a PIMP!
The supporting cast is good. Perhaps the strongest member of this group is Shug, played by Taraji P. Henson. Henson's character goes through an entire life's worth of emotions during the course of the film. Normally, I would find this a bit showy and overdramatic, however Henson pulls it off. Early on, we learn that the pregnant Shug takes care of Lexus' son when the stripper is out working and therefore she has an attachment to the child. Later events make this more poignant. Late in the film, Shug does something which causes D Jay to respond in a surprising, natural way. This moment over all others in the film provides the biggest emotional impact in my opinion.
Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls round out the supporting cast and their work is good if unexceptional. For Anderson, it is a very subdued performance and perhaps one of the most natural I have seen him in. Qualls has a good scene with Nola (Manning) which does a great job of making both characters human. They simply talk in the background, sharing a few laughs, finding out how much they have in common.
The film's final moments present some twists and turns allowing the film to become more memorable. These twists impact D Jay's life in a way that I didn't expect. They gave his character's life more resonance and interest.
"Hustle and Flow" is a good film with a great performance.