Hippo Manchester
July 28, 2005

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Hustle & Flow (R)
By Amy Diaz

Terrence Dashon Howard plays a man trying to find some reason to exist in the hardscrabble life of a pimp in Memphis in the sensationalistic movie Hustle & Flow.

Hustle & Flow is 50 percent good movie and 50 percent oh-please. The good half comes largely as a result of the considerable acting abilities of Howard, who proved his mettle in Crash and shows again here that he deserves better, more completely developed roles. The other half, the half that makes you occasionally laugh out loud (in places the movie probably doesn’t expect you to) comes from a script full of prostitutes, gangsters, and story contrivances that slide over the edge of gritty reality into the bog of made-up nonsense. It’s a fine line, the difference between real stories drawn from the street and tales of woe invented by a 14-year-old boy living in suburbia.

Take for example the opening scenes with DJay (Howard). He is a weary man — old before his time because of the pressures of the street which offer him a very dim future. He’s explaining, more or less, the existential crisis caused by one of his three prostitutes, Nola (Tara Manning). Her blond hair in cornrows, Nola is something of a little sister to DJay — you know, a little sister he’s got no problem turning out for $20. Like the other two women in his care, the pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and the bitchy Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), Nola is a piece of his property, and one that he doesn’t feel too bad about treating poorly. His attitude toward them may have something to do with the fact that they aren’t earners — nor will they ever be. With them and a small drug business his only occupation, DJay is in danger of being a wasted life and is just conscious enough of this that it bothers him. A chance encounter with Key (Anthony Anderson), an old high school friend who now runs the sound at his church, and news that a now-famous rapper Skinny (Chris Bridges a.k.a. Ludacris) will be in town, get DJay thinking about rekindling his own rap-star dreams. If DJay and Key can make a demo and Skinny, a passing acquaintance from back in the day, listens to it, perhaps DJay can find a way out of his bleak life.

Shelby (DJ Qualls), a white boy sound expert from Key’s church, and even the prostitutes eventually get involved in this little family project. It is, for everybody, a chance at a better life, even for Key who — though a family man with a nice house and wife —  is unsatisfied that his dreams of being a producer never materialized.

With limited variation, Hustle & Flow plays out predictably, Rocky for rappers as the film’s creators have intended. And, OK, this sort of general uplift is a necessary evil for a film about the streets. It’s the road — paved with whining, horrible female characters and one-too-many speeches about having a dream from DJay — that makes the journey harder to swallow than it should be.

Howard, however, remains steadfast throughout the film. No matter what kind of half-baked plot or character is thrown his way, Howard keeps DJay from slipping into the melodramatic muck. We can feel his desperation, which drips off him like sweat on a humid Memphis day. We can see in his eyes a kind of rawness — sadness and anger are never far from the surface with him.

This one great performance — plus a fairly good one from Anderson — keep the movie from feeling too much like something that would show up on the Lifetime Network for Rappers.