It may be hard out there for a pimp. But things have gone pretty well for Hustle & Flow writer-director Craig Brewer. He certainly hustled, along with producers John Singleton and Stephanie Allain, who financed the movie on their own. And the money flowed, when they sold it for a cool $9 mil at Sundance, where its bootstrap uplift counterprogrammed art house fare. Now, amid a blockbuster marketing push, the backlash has begun. The tale of a broke-down Memphis pimp turned rapper is being dismissed as shallow wish fulfillment, poverty porn, a hip-hop cash-in, and just plain silly. Of course, Hustle & Flow is all those things, but it telegraphs its intentions quite clearly. With 8 Mile in its rearview, this flick openly guns for the Rockys. And though Terrence Howard’s nuanced performance as accidental rap artist DJay suggests complex emotions, this is more Singin’ in the Rain than Esther Kahn.
Howard’s exquisite ambivalence, which recalls that of Wood Harris in the undersung Paid in Full, gestures toward a depth the film never intends to plumb. With one glance he pushes beyond stoicism, wordlessly complicating his hangdog defeat, tempering exuberance with anguish. The plot, though, proceeds programmatically. You just have to lock the bar over your lap and submit to the story’s climbs and chutes—from the dry-rot bungalow frustration to the charmed chance meetings and spiritual dustings, from the hot-dog musical discovery to the tragic tumble to the small-pond triumph.
To the film’s credit, Memphis never looked worse. Whether you call it high tourism or a ghetto pass, Brewer’s movie happily ignores Beale, blues, and barbecue. From DJay’s two-tone sedan to the cellulite at a roadside strip joint, Hustle revels in the skids. And as with Gregg Araki’s prostitution scenes in Mysterious Skin, it leaves the red-light district to examine the sex trade as plied in seemingly innocuous parks and at the mouths of Everycity underpasses. We get to know DJay mostly during the dead time spent waiting to hawk his girl, Taryn Manning’s Nola. Like a dirty-South Kevin Smith, Brewer has an ear for bullshit, the raunchy aside, and the tossed-off snap.
All that said, there’s something wrong with Hustle. A bad aftertaste, and not just the dry grit of Memphis dust, but something meaner. A feeling that Brewer’s sensibility is way off. Aside from Howard’s characterization, the most indelible parts of the movie are the demeaning caricatures forced on DJay’s women. The wonderful but squandered Paula Jai Parker plays her role of shrew stripper girlfriend on the verge of camp—her only defense against such an injurious sketch. And Taraji P. Henson, who makes the most of her pregnant hooker’s helpless dependency, is stuck in the “heart of gold” rut. Elise Neal, as the striver wife of DJay’s producer pal (Anthony Anderson), is trapped by equally cardboard careerist claptrap. And when it all shakes out, the most memorable visual ends up being the camera’s relentless push up Manning’s skirt—a move that’s fun in a self-consciously voyeuristic flick like Femme Fatale but here feels cheap. And in another true pimp stroke, Brewer ensures that the two characters with the most innate ambition in his story are white: Manning’s washout with a sudden head for business and DJ Qualls’s stoner church pianist who lays down DJay’s crunk beats. As cute as Manning and Qualls can be, these seem like multiplex concessions from a director whose next project, Black Snake Moan, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Timberlake, heads further South, to Robert Johnson’s crossroads—where the devil buys guitar players’ souls and maybe some salable stereotypes too.