Newsflash: Hustle & Flow is great. Where have you heard that before? Oh, everywhere. There has been no shortage of love for the tale of a down-on-his-luck pimp whose early mid-life crisis drives him to pursue a rap career. Count me among the millions (or, looking at its profitable, but meager box office returns, thousands?) seduced my the film's charm.
And what charm it is -- while most would call the film a drama, I see Hustle & Flow as a comedy. An uproarious comedy, even. The weight of the hard life of Terrence Howard's DJay character (a more-or-less good pimp who's also a drug dealer and not very successful at either job) and his house full o' hoes, of course, pulls against the comedy, making a story that's rife with absurdity. It's often hilarious despite itself. Factor in the far, far away setting of Memphis and you have a larger-than-life, wholly singular tale that harks back to the stilted, alternate universes of '70s blaxploitation cinema. I'm not going to use the word "camp" to describe the film, but it comes very, very close to having that effect.
And, of course, this is not to shit on the work of director-cum-seemingly-down-whiteboy Craig Brewer, who throughout the newly released DVD's bonus features and commentary, seems a bit over-aware of the film's potential importance and clout (he's the kind of dude who refers to guys as "cat" without irony and says, straight-faced, things like "I wanted to give the audience an education on how rap is put together"). Nor am I trying to apologize for the film's odd tone or moral ambiguity (it's hard out here for a pimp, but what about them hoes?). All I'm attempting to do is show that the film's effect outweighs its intent. I don't about what combination of sloppy filmmaking and sharp writing (or vice versa) Hustle & Flow ultimately is -- I love it just the way it is. What follows are some reasons why. Spoilers abound, so beware.
When we are introduced to DJay, he looks like this:
See, man ain't like a dog. And when I say "man," I'm talking about man as in mankind, not man as in men. Because men, well, we a lot like a dog. Y'know, we like to piss on things. Sniff a bitch when we can. Even get a little pink hard-on the way they do. We territorial as shit, you know, we gonna protect our own. But man, he know about death. Got him a sense of history. Got religion. See, a dog, man, a dog don't know shit about no birthdays or Christmas or Easter Bunny, none of that shit. And one day, God gonna come calling, so you know, they going through life carefree. But people like you and me, man, we always guessin'. Wonderin', "What if?" You know what I mean? So when you say to me, "Hey, I don't think we should be doin' this," I gotta say, baby, I don't think we need to be doing this, neither, but we ain't gonna get no move on in this world, lying around in the sun, lickin' our ass all day. I mean, we man. I mean, you a woman and all, but we man. So with this said, you tell me what it is you wanna do with your life.
We come to find that the men-not-man he's addressing is the semi-retarded hooker Nola, played by Taryn Manning, who offers this response to all the astounding articulation:
My thoughts exactly!
Anyway, DJay, much like Pretty Woman's Vivian, is a sex worker (or is that sex manager? What sort of overarching title can you give a pimp?) with a heart of gold. Sometimes.
Not so nice DJay:
Even though the film refuses to condemn DJay's lifestyle choice (in the DVD bonus features, Brewer repeatedly refers to as a movie about women getting behind their men, which seems at least a little insensitive), it does a great job of shading in DJ. He's the kind of emotionally complex guy who has no problem throwing a woman out in the cold (the above shot is about as violent as he gets, though -- he's a pimp fit for Candyland), but will cry when moved by song.
That's his response to a stretch in the film in which she . . .
. . . caterwauls like this. It lasts for about two minutes and is as over-the-top as it needs to be to compete with everything else that's going on.
Everything else, like, for example, the budding rap career that DJay builds and builds over the film's course.
I mean, really.
Lovely gold-tooth smile (sucka!) aside, he hustles but mostly blows when it comes to rapping. The movie sort of ignores that, focusing on his sound's progression, not his improvement as a rapper. That only adds to the plot's absurdity -- that he should be striving for a rap career (in his mid-30's, no less!) is silly. That we're to root for him, despite his utter lack of skills or self-awareness is LOL-able. That he achieves the modicum of success that he does by the end of the film (despite his considerable hustle) is the stuff of fantasy.
But, then, so is a pimp who, while sometimes surly and brusque to his hoes, is mostly nice to them. The film itself picks up whatever slack DJay leaves by presenting his women as almost entirely likeable. If DJay doesn't always treat them right, Brewer does.
Take for example, Taryn Manning's Nola character, whom I said before is semi-retarded.
But more than that, totally wonderful:
I mean, everything -- the micro-braids, the effortless sexuality, the razor lips, the slight speech impediment, the bad equilibrium -- is perfectly trashy.
But she's no mere whore -- the girl has an actual function: when it's time to record, she gets the job of turning the fan off!
Again . . .
. . . and again.
Nola's great, but it's Lex (not so much played but brilliantly emitted by Paula Jai Parker) -- DJay's stripper hoe with apparently good equilibrium -- who steals my heart every time.
She's not even real, and I love her like a Whitney.
Witness the sass:
When DJay informs her that he'll be hanging with Skinny Black, the local rapper turned national success story that DJay sort of vaguely knew back in the day and who thus kicks off DJay's premature mid-life crisis, Lex is unmoved: "So, what? Am I supposed to piss myself or sumin'?"
Also? She refers to Nola's braids as a "kitchen-ass hairdo." The accuracy of a journalist with the finesse of a poet! Lex (that's short for Lexus because of course it is) is honestly my hero.
Yeah, baby. I'm hongry, too.
Rounding out DJay's triumvirate of hoes is Shug (Color Purple much?), played by the normally lovely, Beyoncé-esque Taraji P. Henson, who looks like she's having a wicked thyroid flare-up.
Yeah, no idea. Maybe it was the Memphis heat, or the fake pregnancy. Shug is DJay's bottom bitch, which means she's constantly put down, despite being as sweet as her name suggests. Pregnant and maternal (she has a greater bond with Lex's son than even Lex does), she is a Mary among Magdalenes.
Shug gets a chance to shine, though, singing the highly unlikely hooks to DJay's demo recordings, which have highly unlikely production values. Her literal discovery of her voice for the best song in the film (the Three 6 Mafia-penned "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp") is one of the movie's emotional high points. But then, so is this:
Shug gets devoured! Just kidding -- but it seems things are going that way during the insane, 40-second kiss that kicks off Flow's third act and makes DJay's affection for Shug unquestionable. The music swells as their tongues slither and you don't know if you're watching old Hollywood, a porno or a carnival.
The genius of Hustle & Flow, accidental or not, is that it's all three -- it's an exploitation movie with a heart of platinum about a pimp with a heart of gold who wants so badly to entertain. Though Brewer seems sometimes to be going for some kind of crunk American Graffitti . . .
. . . he comes out with something far more idiosyncratic. A film in which Anthony Anderson's biggest laugh comes from a tossed off epithet ("Ya dirt rascal pimp!").
A film in which Elise Neal is allowed to make bourgie loveable.
A film in which DJ Qualls can just be DJ Qualls.
A film that reminds us of the joys of "the clapper":
Seriously, Hustle & Flow has everything -- it contains the multi-pronged sensory attack of Shaft, or, to use a more flattering example, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
It even has a moral: Before you show up to supply drugs to a famous rapper who's really just a sell-out, please get yourself some mom hair . . .
. . . and when life gives you lemons (by way of said rapper destroying the demo tape you just gave him after he's just played it like he's real cool with you) . . .
. . . beat those lemons till they bleed so hard, they give you a reputation that guarantees radio play . . .
Oh, and also, suits give you power . . .
. . . if you're a hoe, that is.
A final thought: say what you will about Terrence Howard -- he needs to rock the 'rows more often.
I don't even care if they're kitchen-ass.