You know, it’s hard out here for a pimp. That is the general message and anthem of the surprisingly light-hearted movie Hustle & Flow, written and directed by Craig Brewer. For those of you who loved 8 Mile and said a little prayer that Eminem would be the next big Hollywood actor (looks like nobody was listening to your pleas), pop the DVD back into your player and kick your feet up on the sofa. For the rest of you that want a sincere feel-good rap film with a protagonist that can actually act, Hustle & Flow may be your salvation.
Djay (Terrence Howard) is just a regular working-class guy trying to make a living as a pimp/drug dealer in Memphis, Tennessee. Hanging around his posse of hoes, he reigns as the head Shepard, sending them off to locate the loot. While Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) works part time as a stripper rubbing her ass on strange men’s laps, Nola (Taryn Manning) sticks to the basics of pleasuring men in backs of automobiles, while pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) stays home and maintains domestic duties back at the whore house. They’re not quite the Brady Bunch, but they are family in their own way.
Effortless sex is not enough to fulfill Djay, who yearns for greater happiness in his life. He has always dreamed of being a famous rapper and sharing his grooves with the world. Just when it seems that such a fantasy is hopeless, he bumps into his old friend Key (Anthony Anderson), who once had dreams of owning a studio but now makes music at the local church with pot-smoking Shelby (DJ Qualls). Their encounter incites their desire to pursue their musical goals together and embrace a second chance at life.
While certainly not breaking any new ground with its rags-to-riches plot, Hustle & Flow succeeds by choosing humor and entertainment over melodrama. It is filled with great one liners, like “What wife wouldn’t want her husband spending all his time in a house of hoes!” A hilarious scene follows Key’s conservative wife Yvette (Elise Neal) trying to force conversation with the ditzy prostitutes as they sit on her expensive couch after dinnertime. There is very little time devoted to feeling sorry for these characters or even genuinely believing they deserve something better. Djay can be extremely hot-tempered and domineering, treating his hoes more like child laborers than actual human beings. He is not a particularly likeable gentleman, but he has infectious strength and the people in his life have faith in him. Only through the side characters is Djay able to shine brighter than his bling bling.
Nola is perhaps the most misunderstood of the bunch, strutting around with her blue eyeshadow, skimpy skirts, and tightly braided hair arguably cutting off circulation to her brain. While she appears to possess the IQ of tuna fish, she proves to be stronger than people anticipate when given the opportunity to excel. Taryn Manning, previously costarring in 8 Mile and Crazy/Beautiful, has made a career out of playing trashy lowlife girls, but she brings a level of sensitivity to a role that could otherwise appear vacant. Anthony Anderson stuns audiences by showing that he can handle a dramatic role, and should consider switching genres completely before someone drags him into the sequel to Kangaroo Jack. But the heart and soul of the movie is Terrence Howard, portraying a very flawed man with flickers of kindness appearing just often enough to prevent us from hating the guy. There is nobody else that could play this role with such raw, tortured perfection.
Hustle & Flow has some dark undertones, but they are always overshadowed by the sheer joy of the film’s execution. The musical segments in which they create a demo tape are joyous and enlightening, capable of converting the most straight-laced moviegoers into lyrical rappers. The movie won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, and it delivers on its hype as a contagious crowd-pleaser. Unless your popcorn is laced with sedatives, you will find yourself dancing to the beat and singing “Whoop that trick” with the rest of them. If only all summer movies could ignite this same level of enthusiasm.