Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hustle & Flow / ***½ (R)

D Jay: Terrance HowardKey: Anthony Anderson
Nola: Taryn ManningShug: Taraji P. HensonLexus: Paula Jai ParkerYevette: Elise NealArnel: Isaac HayesShelby: DJ QuallsSkinny Black: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Paramount Classics and MTV Films present a film written and directed by Craig Brewer. Running time: 114 min. Rated R (for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence).

In the midst of watching Hustle & Flow I was brought back to the very first things seen on the screen, the opening titles. First there is the fancy Paramount Classics logo, and then the new and improved spaceman audience logo of MTV, then the actual filmed action starts and old school lettering style credits appear across the images. The first of these are yet another set of production companies; but these are the actual filming production companies from before Paramount broke a Sundance Film Festival record with the largest sum ever dished out for the distribution rights for one of that festival’s films. Those original company credits read “A New Deal Production” and “Homegrown Films.” There couldn’t be two more fitting titles flashed upon the screen at the beginning of this film. A new deal is what this whole story is about; that dream everyone has, no matter how far down the feeding chain they are, about fashioning out a new existence. And homegrown is also just what this film is, culled together and cared for with the passion of someone who has crated it all on his own. And of course a certain homegrown substance does play a pivotal part in the plot of the film.

D Jay is a small time pimp and drug dealer located in Memphis, Tennessee. He talks the talk, walks the walk. He is a hustler to the core. When a popular rap star, Skinny Black (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, 2 Fast 2 Furious) is scheduled to come home to Memphis for the first time since his star rose for a party, the owner of the local watering hole that will host the party tells D Jay that he needs to break out his good stuff, rather than the backwoods trash pot he usually pushes on his clients. This occasion is an opportunity for D Jay, but not to establish himself as a grade A pusher for a client with dough. D Jay sees this possible meeting with the local rap superstar as a way out of this life of pushing and hustling he never dreamed of for himself.

Terrance Howard (Crash) turns in a career making performance as D Jay. With a Memphis lilt to his speech, he makes it clear that the gleam of fame and fortune makes its way into everyone’s dreams; and the life of the street that embodies so much of the hip-hop culture is not just confined to the modern metropolises. Even the trailer park set has a connection with the grit of hip-hop lore at large. Howard’s performance is nothing short of a transformation into the crushed realities of a life dreamed of but always half a continent away, that is until Skinny Black comes home.

The meat of the film flowers out of D Jay’s efforts to cut a hip-hop track out of his own ramshackle house. He runs into an old high school acquaintance in a convenience store who has made a meager living as a local recording engineer. This is Key (Anthony Anderson, Kangaroo Jack), who harbors his own dreams of making it to the big time in the music industry. Key is much more straight-laced than D Jay. Although Key is aware of D Jay’s career choices the two have an understanding that they are both striving for something great with this recording that will levitate each of them from their respective positions in life. This doesn’t prevent the filmmakers from having some fun showing their respective realities clashing upon the initiation of this collaboration. When D Jay shows up at Key’s middleclass neighborhood with two of his prostitutes in tow just as Key and his career oriented wife, Yevette (Elise Neal, Mission to Mars), are settling in for dinner, writer/director Craig Brewer mines the material for all the absurdity and comedy to be found in the situation.

Perhaps the most unique point of view this film provides is D Jay’s relationship with those prostitutes. D Jay pimps three women: Nola (Taryn Manning, 8 Mile), a white girl whom he pimps exclusively from his car in the back alleyways and parks of Memphis; Shug (Taraji P. Henson, Four Brothers), pregnant from an unknown trick and D Jay’s longest running relationship; and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker, She Hate Me), his high maintenance whore who sees herself as the most important ingredient in their little stew. They all live together creating some strange family unit. D Jay alternately treats them as his possessions and loved-ones; creating a unique dynamic the like I have never seen before in a depiction of the world’s oldest profession.

The key scene in the film is when Key and his engineering partner Shelby (DJ Qualls, The New Guy) finally crack down on D Jay to get something on tape. “We need a hook.” In their search for a hook to the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” Key has the idea to have Shug sing the chorus. Shug is one of those people who look as if they’d sooner die than say, Boo!” D Jay pushes her to get it right, but never hints that he thinks she can’t do it. When she does finally nail it, the whole song comes together; and it is easy to see why the Academy honored it with a nomination for Best Song. But it is that hard street love D Jay gives Shug that shows where the strength of these characters comes from and proves how much they love and depend on one another.

Since viewing the film I haven’t been able to get a hook from another hip-hop song out of my head. It is actually from the musical Annie and was stolen by Jay-Z for his hit single “Hard Knock Life.” The line “It’s a hard knock life for us,” rings throughout this film, but like Annie it is a chorus sung not in despair, but with hope. It is the same hope we all have for our lives. A hope for something better.

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