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Hustle & Flow

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/05/06 14:30:36

"Fine performances, gritty look, ridiculous message."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

I want to like “Hustle & Flow” for its fine performances, its gritty look, and its daring refusal to glamorize prostitution and the rap industry. But I want to hate “Hustle & Flow” for its unwillingness to shake off the clichés of rap culture - after all, while pimping is deglamorized here, we still get a pimp/drug dealer as our hero.

It’s a curious rut. It’s a reminder that the hip-hop community can be all-too single-minded at times. The film, written and directed by Craig Brewer, is not afraid to make its central character unlikable, nor is it afraid to have him yearn for redemption outside the criminal life. But the hero’s redemption here comes only in the form of dreams of becoming a rap star. Are those the only two choices out there? Pimp or rapper? Couldn’t we see the tale of a drug dealer who longs to set things straight and becomes, oh, let’s say, a janitor?

This is moot, I suppose, for this is the film we’re given. So let’s move on to the upside of the movie, namely the performances. Terrence Howard had been duly praised for his work here as DJay, the pimp-turned-wannabe-rapper, and such praise is well deserved. Howard’s character is both engaging and despicable; we want to loathe him, but we can’t turn away. Howard finds a lyrical smoothness to DJay’s voice that draws us in.

Supporting Howard, we find Taraji P. Henson, Taryn Manning, and Paula Jai Parker as the three hookers who live with Djay (Henson, as a pregnant whore, is particularly noteworthy); Anthony Anderson (in a surprisingly sharp turn) as a small-time record producer; DJ Qualls as his assistant; and Ludacris as the hometown rapper who went big and sold out. There’s not a mediocre performance in the bunch, as they all keep us watching.

But watching what? While I admire Brewer for making DJay’s life as ugly as possible, by the time he gets around to rapping “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” it’s impossible to sympathize. Oh, poor guy, having difficulties subjugating women and forcing them into a life of sexual slavery? Yeah, real sorry for ya, pal. (Oh, but you only verbally, not physically, abuse your women. Well, that must make you a saint. Whatever.)

On the musical side of things, the plotline that follows DJay building a cheap recording studio in his bedroom (fast food drink holders stapled to the walls act as soundproofing tiling) provides a fascinating look into the creation of an underground hip-hop track - the scene where Anderson and Qualls, having stumbled upon a catchy hook, shoo everyone from the room so they can edit is a successful portrait of artists in action. Ignore the dopey messages the lyrics hold (and the fact that the songs themselves are pretty lousy), and these scenes can suck you in.

It’s a shame, then, that by the film’s final act, the entire thing collapses under its lack of imagination. Brewer falls back on the very rap clichés he set out to avoid. DJay’s confrontation with Ludacris’ character begins well enough, revealing that the music industry isn’t as wonderful as it looks in your dreams. But then Brewer runs out of ideas. The finale is a series of scenes we’ve seen in countless movies before, generic rapper thuggery, and the final message negates the rest of the movie. Redemption won’t set you free, the movie winds up telling us, but a hit single will. For a movie that works so hard to break down the dreams of hip-hop stardom, the finale feels like it was carted in from another movie.

It’s a final act that’s so problematic that it eliminates my struggles with the film. Don’t have to decide whether the pimp hero worship can be trumped by grittiness if the story eventually crumbles. Brewer’s failures in the last thirty minutes overwhelm everything he got right in the first ninety, and by the closing credits, we could really care less just how hard it is anywhere for a pimp.

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