While Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow manages to avoid the retread feel of many ‘reach your dream’ pictures, it also finds itself unwilling to push the envelope enough to make its own voice heard beyond the surface energy and invigorating music, all while projecting a message rife with social dangers. Set in Memphis, Hustle & Flow follows D-Jay (Terrence Howard), a prototypical pimp who scrapes by ghetto-style by selling his girls’ bodies to straggling drivers. Unhappy with his life, he uses a chance meeting with old high school classmate-turned-producer Key (Anthony Anderson) to launch an attempt at a hip-hop career, culminating in a meeting with omega rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris, once again surprisingly effective after a solid turn in Crash), who’s made the rise from Memphis-nothing-to-shining-star that D-Jay dreams of making himself. Unfortunately for D-Jay, their meeting dissolves into a disaster, leaving him wondering if his dreams of having his voice heard are completely misguided.
Hustle & Flow’s biggest problem is its portrayal of D-Jay, and the emotions it attempts to evoke from the audience. We’re clearly meant to sympathize with his plight—being ‘stuck’ in this miserable lifestyle, being played by Skinny Black at the party, having gone nowhere—but why exactly should we care? D-Jay doesn’t just manipulate his women for cash; he deals drugs, and shows little regard to the ho’s who make him his dough until the very end (by then, it just feels contrived). We’re supposed to root for this jerk, to sit with our knuckles white while praying that his mediocre rapping lifts him from this self-made mess? Perhaps it’s unintentional, but Hustle & Flow frequently reinforces all the racial stereotypes that filmmakers, rappers, and humanity as a whole have all been fighting to shoot down. There’s little in D-Jay’s persona that invokes empathy, and his ultimate redemption—beyond the normal rags-to-riches angle, there’s a finale that I won’t reveal—is infuriating in its careless dismissal of accountability. D-Jay’s actions reek of the irresponsible, resort-to-violence mentality that plagues the hip-hop nation, and indeed, inspires the (ignorant) mentality that rap isn’t really music. That’s nonsense, of course, but Hustle & Flow does nothing to support the intellectual aspirations of artists like Nas and Immortal Technique, instead conforming to the gun-toting rubbish of the new breed of gangster rappers. Howard does the best he can to inject humanity into D-Jay—it’s a heartfelt performance—but through no fault of his own, he’s unable to overcome Brewer’s shoddy directorial work.
There’s no doubt Hustle & Flow is entertaining: the music is exciting (if lyrically tired), and the performances match that energy. Anthony Anderson, who I have trouble associating with anything other than “Pookie” (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is surprisingly effective here in a rare serious role (as is DJ Qualls), and the various girls assert themselves passably. The script, written Brewer, avoids barraging us with groan-inducing moments: a good thing, too, because Hustle & Flow’s chosen direction is questionable enough without creaky dialogue mucking it up further. Brewer’s attempts to create a dusty, gritty world where failure lurks around every corner are sabotaged by his sharp backpedals whenever an opportunity to make a real statement about the do-anything-to-survive mentality that plagues minority culture, and Hustle & Flow winds up being little more than a poor man’s 8 Mile—down-and-out wastrel turns to hip-hop to dig him out of the dirt—but with none of the emotional heft that Curtis Hanson’s direction inspired.