Hustle and Flow

dir: Craig Brewer
[img_assist|nid=933|title=I think I can hear someone laughing at my jheri curls|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=294]
There is a whole sub-genre of movies that usually go straight to video. They usually star minor rappers and hip-hop artists who want to play gangsters on film in order to live out their fantasy of being hard men, especially when they grew up far from the mean streets of South Central, Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Caroline Springs.

Seriously, you should check out the shelves of your local video store. There’s reams of these flicks, starring people you’ve never heard of, playing out these sub-rap video clip quality fantasies / tributes to their own egos. But you should definitely not watch them. No sins you’ve committed in your life would justify the punishment. Many of them are written and directed by homeless mental patients. At least it seems that way.

This flick shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those. It does have a lot to do with music, but is about far more than romanticising criminality or making an extended promotional opportunity for shills to shill their shilling-worth wares to get more record sales.

Like the recent and unreviewable Get Rich or Die Tryin’, starring a man named after half a dollar. Half a fucking dollar! Even without inflation that’s practically worthless.

Nor is this 8 Mile
Of bedwetting. I just wish he’d yelled “Yo, Adrian” at the end, just to acknowledge the hard work Sylvester Stallone put in creating this template.

Hustle & Flow is about people who want to improve their station in life, but who also have a dream. Not Martin Luther King’s Dream (racial harmony), or Martin Luther’s dream (banging nuns), or Luther Vandross’s dream (white women), but the dream to be heard. To be heard and to matter.

Djay (Terrence Howard) is a pimp with a stable of whores living and sweating in Memphis. There’s no way to write it up any nicer than that. He literally is a pimp, and a drug dealer as well: “Strictly gateway”, as he tells a customer, referring to the fact that he only sells the green stuff. He’s sick of living hand to mouth on poverty row, getting little money from his working girls Shug (Taraji P Henson), Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and Nola (Taryn Manning). Shug is pregnant, Lexus, who has a baby as well, is constantly nagging and prefers stripping for pocket change, and Nola, his braided white girl, his ‘snow bunny’, is his number one earner.

As he informs prospective clients, they pay twenty for whatever can happen in the front seat of a car, and forty for the back seat.

High times, to be sure. Nothing is glamourised, there is no high life to be seduced by, they live scrambling, desperate lives in a slum house. And they’re always sweating. Memphis is made to look like a tropical hellhole. The main characters are always wiping themselves down with whatever comes to hand in the hope of being dry for a minute or two.

Based on a snippet of conversation with an old friend (Isaac Hayes), Djay gets the idea that the one way to drag himself out of the swamp is via translating his experiences of the street into song. He focuses on the impending arrival of a successful rapper, Skinny Black (Ludacris) in several week’s time, back to his home town, as an opportunity to make it happen.

So he goes about getting everything together in anticipation of Skinny’s arrival. There’s no indication that he possesses any talent. He has practically no knowledge of music. And he’s not a particularly sympathetic character. This isn’t a pimp with a heart of gold, waiting to be redeemed by the love of a wealthy woman or a record producer.

What he does have is drive. Pure ambition. He is driven to make things happen, with absolute determination to get what he wants so that he can give up his life of petty larceny and noisy desperation. If he elevates the people around him, well and good, but his desire is singular and self-centred.

Djay is not a good man, nor does he seem to care that much about his girls, but portraying him otherwise would have made the story less believable, less genuine. This way, whatever likeability he might possess comes from what we project onto him, because he certainly doesn’t try to earn it with fake sentiment or manipulative plot devices.

It’s a credit to Terrence Howard’s abilities as an actor that he plays the character in such a way and pulls it off. There’s a believability and an intensity to his performance which elevates a film that would otherwise be easily dismissed. It really is a remarkable performance, especially since it’s from a guy who has said in interviews that he doesn’t really like rap music anyway.

Still, his Tennessee twang is a bit distracting. He says the word “man” a lot, but with the accent, it comes out sounding like “maing”. It’s an interesting accent, paired with some really interesting hairstyles. I’m not going to explain it, but it’s one of the first times I can think of when a protagonist in a flick has jerry curls and it’s supposed to be a positive thing. Jerry Curls! Corn Rows! He goes through them all, sometimes in the duration of the one scene.

Djay collects around himself people who can help him out, most importantly Key (Anthony Anderson) as a producer, and Shelby (DJ Qualls) for the music. They convert a room in his hovel into a studio, replete with the egg cartons on the walls for sound-proofing.

They are represented as amateurs, learning how to do it as they go along, as Djay sweats and stresses over his lyrics, and they slowly build the songs together. The other girls get to play a role in the creation of his magnum opus, “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”, where he puts into song the feelings and impressions he derives from his life.

I would have thought it would have been harder “out here” for the girls rather than the pimps, but what do I know about the life of vice, apart from as a customer of it? Watching them construct the songs is fascinating, and are amongst the most compelling scenes in the film. Having no liking for or knowledge of rap music is irrelevant as an audience member. Seeing it come about, painstakingly, in a bedroom, with all the minor and major obstacles that they face, is quite amazing.

The next step is always the hardest to take, and the film diverges from its humble origins into plotting which isn’t necessarily successful as it tries to resolve the story. But the resolution, whilst overly optimistic and downbeat at the same time, is very satisfying and appropriate, even if I don’t exactly like how they got there.

It’s a testament to the work put into getting the film right that its elements cohere in such as way as to make it a decent story when those elements themselves are either mundane or unpalatable. The whole mythologising of the pimp in American culture is a constant source of amazement to me, because in no other culture in the world, despite an abundance of said parasites, does it reach such a pinnacle.

The image of the pimp as a powerful, virile man worthy of admiration and respect probably arises from its depiction in blaxploitation cinema of the 70s, where pimps and drug dealers were the heroes to a disenfranchised urban underclass. There’s also the fairly famous book by Iceberg Slim called Pimp, which offers a fascinating (and mostly made up) depiction of a famous pimp’s life. The vile, coathanger-wielding scumbag!

Hustle & Flow works against the stereotype without simplifying or making it more palatable, but neither does it deconstruct it, or take Djay to task. It equates the desire to “get out” of the life as sufficient justification or explanation for his life; the fact that he wants to get out of it is sufficient condemnation of it.

I don’t know if that washes for me. It’s not out of some puritanical moralism on my part, it’s just that, in my imagination, the impulses that make a man decide to make a career out of putting women on the street to make money, and the creative desire to make music don’t really connect. But I guess such things are not mutually exclusive.

The film tries to link the actions of its protagonists to the musical traditions of the region, which is why Isaac Hayes has a small role in the flick. The legendary soul record label Stax Records is name-checked for being the Memphis crucible from which many classic albums and artists arose from. Beyond that, they’re trying to illuminate the world of the ‘bedroom’ musician who still, in this century, makes cassette tapes and tries to sell them from a car boot, working at their craft in lo-fi seclusion, with all the attendant hopes and dreams that come with it.

The region also has its own form of Southern rap, which they call ‘crunk’ in the film, because, I guess, they think it sounds nice. The difference between it and other styles of rap is lost on me, but hey, this sort of stuff gets music nerds in a tizzy.

The acting by everyone else is decent enough, especially Nola and Shug, but it’s so much Terrence Howard’s films that the rest are there as building blocks. The direction is competent, the production is low budget but credible, and the story transcends its elements to become worthy of your viewing pleasure.

Hustle & Flow: better than it should be.

8 recommendations out of 10 that the bitch better have my money, come rain, sleet or shine.

“You Mormons are some brave motherfuckers” – Djay, Hustle & Flow