From Pimp to Rap

'Hustle & Flow' has a lot going against it, but its star and director push it to success

If there are two things I love doing, those things would be "hustling" and also "flowing," and maybe, for a third thing, exposing undercover CIA agents. But mostly hustling and flowing. So it's only natural that I thoroughly enjoyed Hustle & Flow, though, to be fair, this is a fairly trite triumph-over-adversity film, with an uninspired story and an occasionally clunky script.

In fact, viewed objectively, this is an awful movie. And I didn't enjoy it in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way, either: In spite of everything going against it, it just sucked me in with subtly manipulatively cinematography and an amazing performance by Terrence Dashon Howard.

Howard plays DJay, a man who, surprisingly, is not a DJ. Instead, he's a pimp and a drug dealer who wants to be a rap star. I wonder if he'll succeed in his dream, and along the way learn who his friends are, and what fame really means. Yes. I wonder.

Even worse than the Capra-in-the-ghetto story, though, is that the hero starts out as the kind of person who would sell women's bodies for money, and finishes as that kind of person, too. So it's quite a testament to Howard's acting skills that he makes DJay sympathetic, and even vulnerable, without ever slathering himself with that most popular of Hollywood condiments, schmaltz.

The film starts with DJay pimping his hos and selling his product. When a young man who has a great desire for said product is unable to remunerate DJay with hard specie, he offers instead an electronic keyboard, which our heroic DJay accepts after briefly "kicking" the man's "ass."

This musical gift prompts DJay to consider another mode of life, one that doesn't involve profiting from human misery, i.e., the music business. In order to follow through on this plan, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend Key (Anthony Anderson), who has a great deal of recording equipment. Key also has a straight, church-going life and straight, lady's-suit-wearing wife (Elise Neal). I wonder if by the end, Key will talk about the limits of the straight lifestyle and the burning desire to be something more, no matter what the cost. I wonder.

To get to the top, DJay also needs a high-end microphone that Key doesn't have, and, unable to afford it, he thinks of a novel and life-affirming way of getting it: He asks one of his most profitable hos (Tucson native Taryn Manning) to perform a service for a shopkeeper in exchange for said microphone.

This was the first moment where the script really started to break down, in that Manning's character finds it emotionally devastating to have to do this, and we're treated to a heartfelt scene of Howard and Manning talking about their feelings and the importance of doing what it takes to get ahead in the world.

What made this odd was that in 30 or 40 previous scenes, Manning was hopping in the back of cars and performing extra-legal services for 20 bucks a pop, for some reason, without that occasioned character-building speechifying. Oh well, as I said, the flaws somehow don't add up to a bad movie.

Even when DJay realizes that he loves another one of his hos because she's a "right bottom bitch," i.e., she is tremendously subservient to him. Even when DJay's idol, famous rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), shows him the true face of fame. Even when DJay goes too far and nearly loses everything he's worked so hard for. Even when it seems that things couldn't be more textbook.

But then again, they wouldn't have put all this stuff in the textbook if it hadn't worked in the past. While Terrence Dashon Howard's pitch-perfect performance does a lot of work for this film, director Craig Brewer still deserves a lot of credit. He knows that the most important thing about filmmaking is pacing. The story unfolds at just the right rate, with very little in the way of exposition and lots in the way of visual storytelling.

Cinematographer Amy Vincent, one of the very few working female cinematographers, no doubt helped out with that. With a standard script, it's important not to tell the story entirely in dialogue, since we already know the basic content of what everyone's going to say. Instead, Brewer and Vincent present a sweet flow of images that conveys just as much information as anything spoken.

So in short, this is the perfect textbook film. Which means that it breaks no new ground (unless having a pimp for a hero could be considered groundbreaking, and to some extent it could be, but that might not be ground that really needed to be broken), but it does what most boiler-plate Hollywood dramas try to do, and for some reason fail at: It provides nearly seamless and highly immersive entertainment that neatly tricks the audience into rooting for the hero. When your hero is a pimp, that's a pretty neat trick.

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