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The Humid Press of Days


Hustle & Flow

Craig Brewer, USA, 2005

Rating: 4.1


Posted: August 1, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Among the numberless clichés that artists and critics alike love unconditionally is a certain trope regarding a story's setting. Using Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film as an example, the cliché goes something like this (with italics added for emphasis): "With its Gothic architecture and menacing, shadowy side streets, Gotham City becomes a character in the story." Well, guess what? Gotham City -- or New York City, or Wisteria Lane, or Beverly Hills or wherever -- is not a character; it's a setting. Unless Battlestar Galactica is run by an artificially intelligent computer that interacts with the other characters, it's not a character. But if a setting does its job especially well, it becomes an irreplaceable part of the story, such that it could take place nowhere else.

So this writer will not at any time say that the sultry streets of Memphis, in which director Craig Brewer's attention-getting indie Hustle & Flow is set, are so real that the city becomes a character in the film. But those rundown streets, with their seedy establishments and squalid homes, are as essential to the film's success as its script, Brewer's direction or the magnetic performance of Terrence Howard. As captured by cinematographer Amelia Vincent, the city exudes a washed-out, coming-apart-at-the-seams gloom enhanced by the pregnant atmosphere of an oppressive summer. It's a city where hopes go to die slow, numb deaths; its boulevards are filled not so much with broken dreams as with dreams that slowly evaporate into the humid press of days.

As such, it's the perfect backdrop for a midlife crisis like the one suffered by DJay (Howard), a strictly small-time pimp and grass dealer who, upon reaching the age at which his father died, slowly becomes aware of just how little he's scrambling to hold onto. DJay runs a penny-ante stable of three prostitutes, all of whom share his dilapidated home: Shug (Taraji Henson), pregnant with the child of some unknown john; Lexus (Pauli Jai Parker), a brash stripper with a son of her own; and Nola (Taryn Manning), a skinny white blonde who allows DJay to sweet-talk her into doing things she doesn't want to do to soothe the restless voices that tell her she's wasting her life.

DJay's hearing those voices, as well, and a couple of chance encounters -- with a bum who trades him a keyboard for dope, and with Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer who's also feeling the itch of unfulfilled desires -- convince him to begin scribbling his thoughts in rap verse. Soon, he's laying those ideas down in a makeshift home recording studio with Key and a musician named Shelby (DJ Qualls). The scenes that show them in the grip of the creative process are the film's most inspiring; the viewer's pulse quickens as ideas coalesce and songs falls into place.

Like those high-spirited and catchy crunk songs, Hustle & Flow itself proves, for all its modest origins, an engrossing and engaging work, with all of the principals turning in better performances than might be expected. It's heartening to see both Anderson and Qualls play outside of their familiar personas, and Henson is heartbreaking as the meek Shug, whose quiet affection for DJay redeems him (somewhat) in the viewer's eyes. Manning and Elise Neal, who plays Key's disapproving wife, are also effective.

But the film belongs to Howard, whose bitterly honeyed voice and compelling presence have threatened to make him a star for some time. His nuanced turn displays the charisma DJay needs to keep his loose-knit family together, as well as his selfishness and outright cruelty in pursuit of his goal. Howard allows us to sympathize with DJay's quest (especially when he nervously delivers a demo tape into the hands of Skinny Black, a local rapper made good, played pitch-perfect by the charming Ludacris) without seeing him as a sympathetic figure.

That distinction is key; after all, the point isn't for us to like DJay but to connect with his quiet desperation -- a two-bit hustler stuck in a sluggish city has something to escape from besides a boring, nine-to-five cubicle existence. And connect we do, both in spite of and because of DJay's shortcomings. Hustle & Flow is that rare underdog film in which we root for the underdog despite ourselves. The movie itself, however, is happily much easier to cheer.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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