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A pimp dreams big in 'Hustle & Flow'

Tired of fighting to survive, Terrence Howard's DJay tries to make it as a rapper.

July 22, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Hustle & Flow" abounds with all the ingredients of a terrific popular entertainment. Writer-director Craig Brewer first of all cares deeply for his characters, with the result that each one emerges as a distinctive, involving individual, and this care extends from the film's casting down to such details as the gold teeth sported by one of its stars. Wrenching in its raw emotions, hilarious in its earthy humor yet subtle in myriad ways, "Hustle & Flow" catches life in a warm embrace, unafraid of sentiment but not looking away from some of the harsher realities of everyday existence. It's safe to say it's not like any other movie about a black pimp.

Terrence Howard's tough but reflective DJay is every bit as memorable as the fierce and flashy Max Julien was in "The Mack" (1973), one of the most popular yet serious pictures of the blaxploitation cycle, or Morgan Freeman as the most terrifying pimp imaginable in "Street Smart" (1987). "Hustle & Flow," however, is working on an entirely different level as it explores its simple, persistent theme: "Everybody needs a dream."

Caught up in an endless routine of driving around the seedier side of Memphis in search of clients with his two prostitutes -- there's a third at his shabby rented home, awaiting the imminent birth of his child -- DJay focuses on what he has to do to survive and take care of his women. But when he hears that platinum-selling rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), a high school classmate, will be making a hometown Fourth of July visit at a club run by DJay's friend Arnel (Isaac Hayes, a real-life Memphis legend), DJay is made painfully aware of the loss of his dreams. Encountering a street character who insists on selling him a keyboard and running into old friend Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer who always wanted to own a recording studio, DJay begins to consider that if Skinny Black could make it as a rapper, why couldn't he. Pretty soon DJay and Key are converting a room in DJay's house into a makeshift studio, and Key has enlisted the help of his church's pianist, Shelby (DJ Qualls), a skinny white kid with plenty of wit and talent.

An exciting atmosphere of creativity enthralls the three, but there's some fallout. Key's wife, Yevette (Elise Neal), proper and upwardly mobile, is less than thrilled that her husband, whom she calls by his real name, Clyde, is spending more and more of his spare time at "a house full of whores." One of DJay's women, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who's also a stripper, loses all respect for DJay for neglecting business. Nola (Taryn Manning), a poor white runaway, finds DJay's dream contagious, while the luminous, pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson), whose entire existence centers on DJay, is thrilled to be asked to sing backup on "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," a prospect as amusingly ironic as it sounds, but she puts so much soul into it that the effect is also touching.

"Hustle & Flow" unfolds in the satisfying fashion of classic Hollywood movies that strike a balance between grit and heart, capturing the hard edge of poverty and lack of opportunity but also offering a ray of hope for a better life. Scott Bomar's score and Amelia Vincent's camerawork exude the atmosphere of the funkier areas of picturesque Memphis. Above all, "Hustle & Flow" places Howard front and center as a man with little education but much street wisdom. A pimp who can't afford a flashy wardrobe but who puts his hair up in rollers every day, DJay seems a world apart from Howard's sophisticated, uptight Hollywood director in "Crash," but Howard makes them equally indelible -- and Howard's scenes with Ludacris are as jolting as they were in "Crash." "Hustle & Flow" could just wind up a summer sleeper.


'Hustle & Flow'

MPAA rating: R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence

Times guidelines: Language stronger than sexual content, adult themes and situations

A Paramount Classics, MTV Films and New Deal Entertainment presentation. Writer-director Craig Brewer. Producers John Singleton, Stephanie Allain. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent. Editor Billy Fox. Music Scott Bomar. Costumes Kimberly R. Hardin. Production designer Keith Brian Burns. Set decorator Joni Wheeler. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

In general release.

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