Hustle & Flow (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hustle & Flow takes a clich? and imbues it with new life through the virtues of directorial flair and talented acting. For most of its running time, Hustle & Flow follows familiar patterns, deviating only during a third act that brings the street's grit into what initially appears to be a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Never fear, though - writer/director Craig Brewer respects his characters too much to leave them in an unredeemed state.

Terrence Dashon Howard, who can also currently be seen in Crash, has the lead role of DJay, a pimp with a heart as gold as one of his teeth. DJay shares a house with his three hookers, all of whom have different relationships with him. Nola (Taryn Manning), the youngest, views DJay as a father-figure. Because of her age and skin color (she's white), she has the best earning power. Shug (Taraji P. Henson), carries a torch for DJay, and he for her. Because she's pregnant, she's not on the street. Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) is arrogant and confrontational, and her attitude frequently rubs DJay the wrong way.

Pimping may be DJay's vocation, but it's not his love. His dream is to record a hip-hop album and use the fame and fortune accrued from that as a catapult out of his current economic situation. When big-time rap artist Skinny Black (Ludacris) announces that he's "coming home" for a private party, DJay sees an opportunity to be noticed. He claims a high school connection to Skinny Black, and if he can record something and get a copy to the star, he might have a shot. So, with the help of local producer Key (Anthony Anderson), and a skinny white guy named Shelby (DJ Qualls), he embarks upon making his dream a reality.

Hustle & Flow follows a traditional three-act structure. The first introduces the characters and establishes their circumstances. The second, and most compelling of the three segments, centers on the development of DJay's hip-hop single, and how it grows from ramblings scribbled on a scrap of paper to a polished track. Finally, there's the concluding chapter, in which DJay encounters the harsh realities of trying to break into the rap industry.

Howard is the rock upon which the film rests. This is an opportunity for him to show his chops as an actor, and the role is a challenge. In many ways, DJay is not a likeable individual - not only is he a pimp, but he's a drug-dealer as well, and he often resorts to violence as a way to solve problems. It's in part due to Howard's multi-faceted performance that we develop a bond with DJay and eventually root for him to find a way out of the pit. Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls provide their share of comedic moments, although they're not present entirely for comic relief. Taryn Manning and Taraji P. Henson amplify the film's emotional content. And real-life rap figure Ludacris (who also appears in Crash) has an effective turn as the crass Skinny Black.

By adopting a tone that incorporates offbeat humor and occasional doses of the grim, grungy reality surrounding DJay's life, Brewer avoids a fatal descent into the saccharine maw that often ingests underdog-triumphs motion pictures. Every time Hustle & Flow appears to be drifting too deeply into feel-good territory, the director reels it back in by employing a sudden act of violence (or something similar) to act as a splash of cold water. Winning the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature at the Sundance Film Festival is rarely a mark of distinction. But don't let that dissuade you - Hustle & Flow is worth a look. It celebrates art, hope, and dreams, and you don't have to like hip-hop to appreciate the message or the way in which it is delivered.

Hustle & Flow (United States, 2005)

Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson, Paula Jai Parker, Elise Neal, DJ Qualls, Ludacris
Screenplay: Craig Brewer
Cinematography: Amy Vincent
Music: Scott Bomar
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs, Brief Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1