Missoula Independent | July 22, 2005
Hustle & Flow

Directed by Craig Brewer

Starring Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson and Taryn Manning

Rated R

John Singleton’s directorial debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, tackled race and social inequality head on with an unflinching portrayal of street life in South Central Los Angeles. The film was critically acclaimed partly because it never sugarcoated the endemic violence of its surroundings, nor the consequences for those whose lives that violence touched. Boyz was sincere and gritty, and for audiences far removed from the realities of street life, a rare Hollywood glimpse into a complex urban world.

Like Boyz, Singleton’s latest production, Hustle & Flow, is set up to showcase a troubled inner-city character pursuing a better life against tough social odds. The film follows DJay, a drug-dealing Memphis street hustler, as he experiences a midlife crisis and chases a wild dream of rap stardom. Just like the young boys avoiding violence in Boyz, Hustle’s main character is trying to rise above the fray and make something of a life we see as clearly destined for failure.

The problem with Hustle, written and directed by Craig Brewer, is that the film discards the staggering odds in order to gratify the audience’s wish for a happy ending. Is this a gritty portrait of the Memphis ghettos or a feel-good movie with a dark underbelly? Hustle never really makes up its mind and gets lost somewhere in between.

A pivotal scene illustrating the film’s characteristic incongruity occurs when DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard) ends up hanging out in a church listening to gorgeous gospel music. How DJay arrives here is a matter of streetwise serendipity, but here he is watching his long-lost high school buddy Key (Anthony Anderson) working as a fledgling record producer in the house of God. With his loyal trick-turner Nola (Taryn Manning) by his side, we see a suddenly vulnerable DJay break into tears for reasons never articulated.

DJay’s ensuing epiphany eventually leads to his collaboration with Key on a demo album featuring Djay’s raw flow, with lyrics about how “it’s hard out there on a pimp” and how to “drop that trick.” The majority of the film settles on these recording sessions, focusing on the veracity and verve of DJay and turning this urban struggle into a classic underdog tale.

But I keep going back to that scene in the church.

What’s striking about DJay’s moment is the fact that he never actually undergoes the conversion foreshadowed by his tears; you could say he changes his tactics, but definitely not his goals. What’s the purpose? Just judging by his actions, DJay remains a conflicted, troubled, frustrated and flawed street thug. Rooting for him means looking past incidents like one in which a dancer whom he pimps out stands up for her interests and, in response, gets choked, thrown onto the street and banished from the rest of the movie. This violence, inexplicably, only seems to make the remaining prostitutes more loyal to DJay.

So, then, what purpose does the epiphanic scene serve? Well, when DJay sits in the pew and weeps at the sound of the Lord’s music, he’s no longer a drug dealer who employs women as prostitutes and strippers. He is urbane and capable of appreciating the fine arts—reformed, maybe. This sympathetic DJay is missing in action for the rest of the film, and one can only assume that Brewer inserted the touching scene to distance his main character from his reprehensible actions.

And there are plenty of reasons to establish that distance, because Djay’s treatment of women is almost uniformly despicable. In addition to the one prostitute thrown out of the house, women get slapped, pimped, ordered around and generally treated like props throughout the film. Key’s wife (the beautiful Elise Neal) is made to seem like a shrew when she talks about work, redeeming herself only by delivering sandwiches to her husband while he works in the studio with DJay. One doe-eyed pregnant ho (the loveable Taraji P. Henson), who lives with DJay and two other prostitutes, remains obsequious through constant berating, eventually getting rewarded with DJay’s love. Nola, the white country girl, is forced to use her body against her will to further DJay’s dreams; though she asserts herself before the film’s conclusion, it is only in service of DJay’s dreams.

But, hey, this is a movie about a pimp. DJay wouldn’t be believable if he didn’t behave the way he does. Still, Hustle never decides to go fully in this direction. The film’s gritty reality gets blurred by Key’s harmless do-gooding, the goofy appearance of D.J. Qwalls (of Road Trip fame) as a talented beat maker and the concluding feel-good, underdog vibe.

Hustle & Flow remains an enjoyable film to watch because of its crowd-pleasing inconsistencies. But conclusions about women and violence easily drawn from the film don’t square with the world it claims to portray. Whereas Singleton humanized his subjects in Boyz with realistic and complex storylines, Brewer’s Hustle settles for empty wish fulfillment—bad choices leading to lucky breaks and a change in tactics pawned off as transformation. Because it bears Singleton’s imprimatur, viewers might be tempted to think Hustle delivers the rough realism to which it pretends, but the film ultimately cringes from truth-telling and ends up concealing more than it reveals. #

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