DJay (Terrence Howard) is all about the show. Leaned back in his Chevy Caprice Classic, his new girl Nola (Taryn Manning) on the seat next to him, he's never not aware of what he looks like, how she's reading him as he speaks, how the next trick might perceive him. His head in curlers, his eyes narrowed, he poses hard while he holds forth: "A man ain't like a dog. Man, they know about death. They got a sense a history," he says, as the camera pulls out, slowly. Men, he continues, "They got religion. A dog don't know sh*t about no birthdays, no Christmas or Easter."
Even as he's haunted by his father's death at his age and imagining a world beyond his own, however, DJay's vision is limited by immediate needs, to ply his pimp trade. And his self-framed wisdom is a function of such limits. Though women are not men, they're like men, he admits to Nola (who listens
while absent-mindedly checking her braids), I that they also have aspirations and needs. "People like you and me are always guessing what if," he muses. But then her next trick rolls up, and DJay sends her to work, watching her short-shorts-ed behind as she strides off to the customer's ride.
Like most any pimp and smalltime dealer (at least those in the movies), DJay thinks he's got it down. Endowed with a man's sense of time and context, he believes that he has control, that he's made informed choices. But as "Hustle & Flow" reveals, DJay's rudimentary moral sensibility can't even begin to encompass his own abuses.
Judgmental and ambitious, he can only compare himself to the others around him. He sells weed and women in Memphis, but sees that crunk has made a star of erstwhile local boy Skinny Black (Ludacris), who appears throughout the film in seemingly parodic wide-angled music videos wielding a shotgun, posing with his Crown Vic, and skulking through backwoods.
The generically named DJay wants a piece of this escape action, imagining that getting out of Memphis with a music deal is tantamount to forward motion. It's the same dream that drives every wannabe rap star (or urban designer, or Trumpish apprentice, for that matter), it's the story sold by mass media. Money equals success.
Often perceptive and always provocative, Craig Brewer's first film is powered by Howard's performance. And to its credit, it doesn't hold back from showing DJay's grotty side: he's selfish, short-sighted, and endlessly angry, living in a one-floor shack with his girls; in addition to Nola, the household includes lap-dancer Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), her young son, and the very pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson), DJay's loyal "bottom bitch." The women are surely caught up in stereotypical roles, arguing with or supporting their man, who in turn sells their time to any creep with $20.
The actors bring depth, detail, and poetry to these characters, but they're essentially women, according to DJay, without lives or stories of their own. Occasionally, alternative perspectives peep out, but DJay finds it hard to grasp that Nola, the girlish prostitute he treats to popsicles and for whom he feels "big love, like a brother," might have aspirations beyond what he offers her.
When she declares, "I want something, I don't know what; everybody's got something important going on in their lives," he asserts that she's his "whole operation." It's not what she has in mind, but neither can articulate another possibility. (Yet. If nothing else, "Hustle & Flow" suggests that more, and more complex, lives exist beyond its own dirty-streets-and-frustrated-hopes framework, in large part due to the resourceful work on an obvious budget by DP Amy Vincent.)
Like Nola, Shug has a sense of something else. When she describes a recent nightmare (in which she gives birth to a dog, then finds herself "breastfeeding a big old catfish"), she thinks it through and concludes it's because she fears the unknown. Such fear, of course, afflicts everyone in the house. DJay makes an earnest effort to wrestle with this fear when he gets hold of an old Casio keyboard.
Recalling his own childhood, when he had a similar device and had dreams beyond his current state, he's inspired to make music, specifically, to "express himself" through hip-hop. And so he decides to make a demo tape, with the help of old friend/sound engineer Key (Anthony Anderson) and church pianist/vending machine stocker Shelby (DJ Qualls), who brings his beat machine.
The three spend hours and hours putting together a couple of tracks, titled "Whoop That Trick" (originally "Beat that bitch," reshaped by the commercial-minded Key) and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," for which Shug provides a sultry, heartfelt hook, and the complex series of looks on her face when she hears herself on tape tells more stories than the script affords her.
On one level, "Hustle & Flow" is a standard boy-with-a-dream saga. (It's been compared to "Rocky" as well as "8 Mile.") But while the production scenes are surprisingly moving (Anderson's canny performance extends the promise of his work on "The Shield" this season), the movie is really less a narrative of one man's achievement than it is an examination of process and conditions. Key situates crunk as emerging from such conditions, likening it to the blues, a return of hip-hop to the South, and a reshaping of tragedy into art. "Every man has the right," he says, "to contribute a verse."
The belief that he has this "right" encourages DJay to deliver his tape to Skinny Black when he spends an evening at a local bar (the owner played by Isaac Hayes). His hopes raised and his sense of masculine entitlement aroused, DJay runs into predictable trouble.
The plot appears to fail him here, reducing his experience to a series of clichés (prison, street cred, CD sales). But if the plot breaks down here, DJay's limits open it out again. He's neither redeemed nor enlightened, and his eventual success is a function of violence and sensationalizing press, more than some version of talent winning the day at last.
But if DJay can't fully understand what's happened or what he's done, "Hustle & Flow" gives you a chance to recognize and read his limits. Resilient in his ignorance, posing like a proud, tough guy, he can't escape the fact that he has a sense of history and context.