DJay is a Memphis pimp and small-time drug dealer who operates out of his car and resides in low-rent housing with erratic air conditioning, sharing his space with his hookers Nola, Shug and Lex. Frustrated with his life, DJay decides to reinvent himself as a rapper with the assistance of former school classmate Key, who is now a recording engineer. Despite lacking experience and money, they set up a makeshift studio in DJay’s home with the aim of cutting a demo that will sufficiently impress hometown rap star Skinny Black and lead to a recording contract.
An independent film with obvious crossover potential, Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow was bought by MTV Films at the Sundance Film Festival for a record $9 million and later released through Paramount Classics. Produced by the studio-affiliated African-American filmmaker John Singleton, who parlayed his breakthrough success with Boyz n the Hood (1991) into a lucrative career as a journeyman hack specializing in such action vehicles as the remake of Shaft (2000), the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and Four Brothers (2005), Brewer’s second feature is as slickly packaged and skilfully engineered as any slice of Hollywood wish-fulfilment fantasy. Brewer would emphasize his humble Memphis roots when promoting both Hustle & Flow and his swiftly-realized follow-up, Black Snake Moan (2006), but Hustle & Flow did not excite buyers on the festival circuit because it was an authentic depiction of the downtown Memphis milieu; it is dynamically entertaining and boasts a great soundtrack, while the narrative momentum – which builds gradually and forcefully in tandem with DJay’s growing confidence behind the mic – partially obscures some of the negative aspects of its central protagonist, not to mention Brewer’s suggestion that even responsible family men like Key occasionally need to break free of their middle-class suburban trappings in order to reassert themselves. Even the dirty streets and lower-class housing of modern day Memphis are lent a romantic quality by Amy Vincent’s stylish cinematography.
The retro-style opening titles and Terrence Howard’s introductory monologue, in which DJay philosophises that, ‘A man ain’t like a dog. Man, they know about death. They got a sense a history’, suggest a blaxploitation vibe, but Rocky (1976) and 8 Mile (2002) prove to be more appropriate comparisons as Brewer’s film chronicles DJay’s quest for success and some form of redemption for his exploitation of women. Despite his raw talent, DJay has the propensity to be a despicable human being, and Terrence Howard thoroughly deserved his Academy Award nomination for maintaining audience sympathy towards such a self-contradictory character. Yet even the actor’s raspy charisma cannot eradicate the nagging doubt of whether DJay is really an underdog deserving of audience empathy as the pimp-turned-rapper exploits friendships and manipulates situations to get ahead in the game; he pimps out Nola to obtain a microphone and tries to jump-start his career by forming a ‘friendship’ with local rap star Skinny Black, while moments of tenderness towards Shug are undermined by flashes of violent temperament. His lyrics may declare that ‘it’s hard out here for a pimp’, but DJay has everyone around him working for his own financial and artistic gain. MTV Films obviously expected a breakout smash when they paid such a significant sum for Hustle & Flow but, in commercial terms, the film peaked early in its theatrical run and ultimately grossed $22million, a disappointing figure when the cost of prints and advertising were taken into account; it is possible that audiences did not embrace DJay as willingly as Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and Eminem’s Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith as that they did not feel comfortable rooting for an ‘underdog’ who was all too eager to use that status to his advantage.
Studio/Distributor: Crunk Pictures, MTV Films, New Deal Productions, Paramount Classics
Director: Craig Brewer; Producers: Stephanie Allen, John Singleton
Screenwriter: Craig Brewer; Cinematographer: Amy Vincent
Art Director: Alexa Marino; Editor: Billy Fox
Composer: Scott Bomar
Duration: 116 minutes
Cast: Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, DJ Qualls
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.