August 27, 2005 -- “Hustle & Flow” is a film composed of two contradictory themes, inhumane exploitation and empowerment. Somehow it manages to take this thesis and antithesis to form a powerful synthesis. The story about a dreamer who wants to become a big music star is nothing new, but the details are different. All of this is grounded in the grinding poverty of the poor side of Memphis. It is leavened with the musical hope that also lives in Memphis.
Terrence Dashon Howard of “Four Brothers” stars as DJay, a pimp and drug dealer who is barely hanging on. He lives in a squalid house with several of his women, and drives a old car with mismatched body panels and shiny wheels. He has dreams of becoming a rap star some day. His dream is rekindled one day when he attends a gospel recording session. The scene where tears well up in DJay's eyes when he hears this emotionally-charged song (“If He Changed My Name,” performed by Jennifer Bynum) is a real show-stopper. When he finally starts pursuing his dream there are a number of people who put him down and tell him he's crazy. DJay plows ahead, determine to succeed by doing “whatever it takes.”
DJay is no angel. He sells dope and he has hookers and strippers working for him. Yet, somehow, he cares for the people around him and is touched when they show kindness towards him. There are two incredibly tender scenes between DJay and Shug, one of his hookers who is about eight months pregnant (played by Taraji P. Henson of “Four Brothers”). Shug sings backup vocals on DJay's first recording and is grateful for the opportunity to contribute. DJay, in turn, is incredibly grateful for Shug's love, support and her total belief in him. It keeps him going against all odds. Others who believe in him are DJay's major financial backer (the hooker in his stable who brings in the most money), Nola (Taryn Manning of “Cold Mountain”), recording engineer Key (Anthony Anderson of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”) and percussion/keyboardist Shelby (DJ Qualls of “The Core”).
Part of DJay's personae is his confidence born of a lifetime of hustling. He knows how to spin a yarn. In the first scene of the movie, we see DJay explaining to Nola the difference between men and animals (anyone who doesn't see the difference ought to listen to this). Later in the film we see DJay once again weave his magic spell, this time on an influential rapper, Skinny Black (Ludacris of “Crash”), hoping to get Skinny's help in getting his recording on the airwaves. While the end of the film is almost a comical explosion of violence and topsy-turvy developments, most of the movie is a heartfelt exploration of love, music, hope and dreams.
The acting in the film is phenomenal by all the actors. The music is exciting and soulful. DJay's musical style is a southern regional variety of hip-hop called “crunk,” which is heard in two main songs in the film, “Whoop That Trick” and “Hustle and Flow.” Both songs were written by Memphis rapper Al Kapone. The music is disco simple, but the vocals and lyrics are rich with soul. The scenes in DJay's primitive recording studio are magical. The film uses Memphis locations to give the film a huge boost of authenticity. The strip club scenes are about as grimy as anything you'll ever see in a mainstream film. Somehow, writer-director Craig Brewer has managed to take a down-and-dirty story of exploitation and despair and transform it into a story about love, passion, hope and empowerment. It may not be very believable, but it sure is unforgettable. This film rates a B+.
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