I’m either too old, too white or just too dumb to get it, but I’m never been able to wrap my brain around the use of the word “pimp” as a synonym for making something stylish in a flashy way. How did our culture take a word derived from the criminal exploitation of women and elevate it to some sort of exalted pop status?
The strongest part of Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is that they don’t “pimp up” their pimp. This film refuses to buy into the urban mythology of pimping and the main character, Djay (Terrence Howard) occupies the next-to-bottom rung of criminality, just above the girls who work for him. He probably gets more respect for the drugs that he sells than for handling the working girls for whom he’s more of a chauffeur than any kind of boss.
Right now, Djay only has one girl working for him, a white girl named Nona (Taryn Manning) with nebulous dreams of something better. His other “ho,” Shug (Taraji Henson), is out of commission due to being pregnant. The other member of their household is a stripper named Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), whom Djay also chauffeurs around.
When Djay runs into an old friend named Key (Anthony Anderson), who has a small recording business making tapes of things like church choirs and legal depositions. This rekindles a forgotten dream from his youth to become a rapper. When he learns that a famous rapper from his old neighborhood, Skinny Black (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), is celebrating the Fourth of July as his favorite hangout, Djay decides his big chance has come. He recruits Key to help him to record a track and he agrees, must to the dismay of his wife (Elise Neal), who’s not keen on the idea of her husband hanging around with his pimp friend and a bunch of prostitutes.
Key brings along Shelby (D. J. Qualls), a white pianist from his church who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of soul, blues, R&B and hip-hop music, and with Shug contributing vocals, they proceed to lay down a track through a process of trial and mostly error.
His attempt to get the tape to Skinny Black, however, goes badly awry and Djay’s reaction only serves to make the situation worse to the point that his dream seems irretrievably lost.
I am hardly a great appreciator of hip-hop styles, but I enjoyed the scenes as Djay, Key and Shelby build the song from the beat up. I can hardly attest to their accuracy, but to my untrained eye, these scenes seemed to brim with an insider’s knowledge of how rap music is written and recorded. The actors provided their own vocals and acquit themselves very admirably. Terrence Howard is as credible as a rapper as Joaquin Phoenix was a respectable Johnny Cash.
The song that Djay supposedly writes, “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” took best song at the Academy Awards. While I still thing Dolly Parton’s song was more deserving, I’m no longer completely mystified by the Academy’s choice. This song managed to hook this hip-hop-phobic white boy, even if I couldn’t help but respond, “It’s not exactly a walk in the park for the girls, is it?”
Ultimately this film shows someone who had largely given up on life being given a second chance at dreams through his own creativity. Even if rap is not your thing, the story has a universal appeal. Even more universal is the transformation of Djay as a person. He starts as someone who stands alone and largely uses the people around him, but his dream doesn’t start to take shape until he learns he trust and depend upon those around him, which he has to do when his own mistakes nearly place his dream out of reach.
The performances are all textured and remarkably natural but Terrence Howard deserves to be singled out. The role of Djay is a tightrope because he has to play someone who is, by definition, a criminal and an exploiter and somehow keep the audience’s sympathy without sugarcoating the reality of his pimping and drug dealing. That he does it is as attributable to Howard’s performance as it is to Craig Brewer’s screenplay. Together they carve out an intelligent man getting by the only way his limited horizons allows to him until he’s awakened to the possibility of something better.
Hustle & Flow is a rap movie with an appeal that can reach far beyond rap’s traditional audience. If hip-hop gives you a headache, you might find it worth your while to stock up on the Tylenol. On the other hand, if you have an allergic reaction to hardcore R-rated language, you probably want to steer well clear of this one.