Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
Pimpin’ ain’t easy. Dog.
See, it just sounds dumb when I say it, and I’m not even saying it out loud, I’m writing it down. But it’s worth writing down because this is one of the fundamental truths realized by DJay (Terrence Howard) in writer-director Craig Brewer’s extraordinary film, Hustle & Flow. Brewer’s honest look at the life of a pimp trying to make something of his life through hip-hop is a stark contrast to the rosy view P.T. Anderson had of the life and times of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; whereas Anderson seemed to believe that working in the world of low-grade porn would be an exciting career move, Brewer offers no such illusions about DJay’s daily grind of selling women and weed for rent money. This is a hard life that’s thrust upon a man, not one he chooses.
DJay works out of an old two-tone Chevy Caprice with a busted AC and sweet rims, pimping out his main girl, Nola (Taryn Manning, reprising the skank role she made her own in Crossroads and 8 Mile). Of his other girls, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) turns tricks out of the strip club where she dances and Shug (Taraji P. Henson) hasn’t worked in a while because one of her johns got her pregnant. All four live together in a run-down house in one of Memphis’ less cracker-friendly neighborhoods. DJay, though, is getting tired of renting out Nola for $20 a ride and selling pot to his neighbors. He’s reached the age his father was when he died, and this sends DJay into a crisis: keep pimping (or pimpin’, if you prefer) on the streets, or try to pursue a dream he left behind long ago. And since the film’s tagline is “Errbody gotta have a dream, y’all,” or something like that, it’s a pretty safe bet that DJay’s going to chase that elusive rainbow we call hip-hop stardom.
Like I mentioned earlier, Brewer is honest above all. The title card is in yellow, 1970s-style text, but it’s not the cheap homage you’d expect from someone like Tarantino, who used a similar gimmick in the opening of Jackie Brown. In that instance, Tarantino was just bragging that he’d seen a few blaxploitation flicks, using the device to point to his own self-absorbed video-clerk “genius,” but Brewer uses the old-school design to set the mood: This is a story about finding your roots, about coming back home, and ultimately about being true to yourself. Plus it costars Ludacris. Sweet.
After selling some weed to a homeless junkie for a busted old Casio keyboard (and man, have I got a lot of stories that start just like that), DJay starts writing lyrics and experimenting with beats, eventually enlisting the help of Key (Anthony Anderson), an old friend from school who now records church choirs and court depositions, to act as producer. This is the first time I’ve actually seen Anderson in a movie, since he’s been too busy starring in Kangaroo Jack and My Baby’s Daddy to make anything I actually want to see. Under Key’s guidance, and with the technical help of Key’s friend Shelby (D. J. Qualls, looking as methed-out as ever), DJay starts to lay down some tracks on a demo tape he plans on slipping to Skinny Black (Luda himself), a Memphis-hero-turned-national-rap-star, at an Independence Day party. DJay knows that getting the tape to Skinny is his only real shot to realize his dreams, and this singular goal drives him further into artistic obsession, often hurting some of the people around him on his way to the goal.
Brewer has fashioned a modern-day tale about coming of age and taking charge of your life, cobbling together a mix of Death of a Salesman, the non-crappy parts of The Big Chill (there are a few in there, trust me), and everything I wanted 8 Mile to be. Eminem’s feature debut was a one-note trick meant to sell his latest album, but Brewer’s story of one man trying to overcome his fears and change his life carries far greater weight, mainly because Terrence Howard more than rises to the challenge of carrying the movie. DJay might not always be likable, but Howard makes him a fully realized character and is always amazing to watch. Howard is magnetic from his opening monologue about hustling and the choices we make, and he brings out DJay’s complex humanity in a powerful scene set in a church: DJay is watching Key record a woman sing a soft gospel song, and the signature tear that rolls quickly down DJay’s cheek feels genuine even though devices like that should be retired. It’s a moment meant to demonstrate that DJay is tired of life the way it is, but unsure how to implement change, and it sells the story’s reality better than any of the dialogue could.
In another testament to Brewer’s talent, the film doesn’t quite turn out the way you think it will, but instead opts for a few twists and developments that give the preceding two hours more meaning and impact than the all-purpose happy ending some might have anticipated. Hustle & Flow won the Audience Award and a cinematography award at Sundance earlier this year, both well-deserved. This is the latest in the growing field of independent blockbusters, films with smaller-name casts and bigger-budget marketing. MTV picked it up at Sundance, and the music channel’s distribution last year of Napoleon Dynamite turned one Mormon’s weird little movie into the thing that one weird guy in your frat won’t stop quoting; it’s possible that with MTV pushing the film, we could all soon be looking at each other and saying, “It’s hard out here for a pimp.” Damn straight.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.