Howard Does the Hustle
2005 must have been an interesting year for Terence Howard as he appeared in various movies with two of them being what you could call underdog stories with "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and "Hustle & Flow". Out of the two it is "Hustle & Flow" which for me is the superior movie with its fascinating drama surrounding a pimp who spots an opportunity to try and lift himself out of his shit life. It is in many ways a typical underdog story; it follows the same construct as many underdog stories only switching the well worn path in the final act. But "Hustle & Flow" is gritty, director Craig Brewer doesn't pull his punches and as you would expect from an underdog story it does infuse you with the will to succeed, to aim for the dream.
DJay scrapes (Terrence Howard - Ray) by selling drugs and working as a pimp, supporting the 3 women who live with him. But when he learns that successful rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) is returning to the town for a private party he spots the opportunity to get himself out of his shit life and make something by laying down a track and getting it to Skinny. Having talked his friend from high school Key (Anthony Anderson) in to producing the track they rope in white musician Shelby (DJ Qualls - The Core) and get to work. Over a few days they manage to create something special with the help of Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and Nola (Taryn Manning) and now the day arrives with Skinny Black returning. But will DJay be able to get his tape to Skinny or will he buckle under the pressure.
So as already mentioned, director Craig Brewer basically uses a standard underdog construct with "Hustle & Flow". The opening third of the movie sets up the situation and the character of DJay who is a pimp and drug dealer who lives with three whores, one of which is pregnant. And whilst we are also introduced to the opportunity as DJay learns that successful rapper Skinny Black is returning to town it is all about DJay and his dream of not just making it big but getting a better life. It is because whilst DJay is a pimp and dealer we take him to heart because all he wants is to rise out of the shit life he is in and when he spots the opportunity he will do what ever it takes to make it happen.
It is the middle section of the movie which is where "Hustle & Flow" becomes the most entertaining as it focuses on DJay and his friends laying down a track so he can hand it to Skinny Black. You have to give Brewer a lot of credit because he makes us feel like we are part of this endeavour as we watch the creation of the song. And he manages to mix drama with humour at the same time so whilst a scene will be ripped with tension just an honest interjection from Shelby dilutes the tension instantly but in a real way. By the time the track starts to really become something, and trust me it does sound good, you are fully involved, championing DJay, Key, Shelby, Nola and Shug and being infused with the power of positivity.
Now in typical underdog style story there is the third section the final piece of the story and this is where again you have to applaud Craig Brewer because generally these sorts of movies become plain sailing where the dream is reached but Brewer does something different. We have more grittiness, more stark realisation for DJay as he realises breaking into the music industry is not simple and whilst we do feel empowered it's not the easy going ending that you probably expect.
Now there are a lot of good performances throughout "Hustle & Flow" from DJ Qualls and Anthony Anderson providing the right amount of humour whilst Taryn Manning and Taraji P. Henson bringing complexity to their characters as they have needs be it to feel love from DJay or not to feel like they're being used. But it is Terence Howard as DJay who makes "Hustle & Flow" work because on one hand he is a pimp, drug dealer with the ability to suddenly become violent yet because the whole time we strangely feel for him as he tries to make something of himself we also champion him. And whilst he may at times be a nasty piece of work, callously pimping out Nola for his own good the softness of his character also shows as he then offers her true guidance and friendship. To put it simply DJay is not so much a complex character but one which is multi layered and Howard portrays all those different layers in a natural flowing manner.
What this all boils down to is that "Hustle & Flow" is a very entertaining and empowering movie. It is an underdog story and as such at times is similar to other underdog stories but it has different layers from being realistically gritty to serving up variations on the theme which you may not be expecting.