A director with an ego like John Singleton should be able to back up his hype with consistently good output. Alas, that hasnt been the case; the mans last enjoyable film was the 2000 Shaft remake. Thus, expectations for Hustle & Flow which Singleton produced were not high. However, Singleton and writer-director Craig Brewer pull through, offering a compelling and controversial tale, despite some cliché trappings.
It sounds like a Southern-fried 8 Mile: DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard), is a slightly underqualified Memphis pimp in a mid-life crisis who seeks success in the rap game. But even though Eminem has already run this story line into the ground, a great cast and entertaining writing save the day.
Howard has an incredible ability to turn deplorable characters into sympathetic figures. Sitting in the studio with his producer Key (Anthony Anderson), DJay tries to come up with a creative title for a song. Turns out Beat that Bitch doesnt work, and neither does Slap that Hoe. But Whoop That Trick, they both discover, seems to have chutzpah. Rounding out DJays vulnerable side is his pregnant girlfriend whos also a prostitute, Shug (Taraji Henson, an intense actress who plays fatigued, embattled characters well).
Its nothing if not realistic: When DJay and Key need to create a recording studio on a poor mans budget, they use duct tape to create a makeshift mic stand, and cover a wall with fast food cartons to serve as soundproofing. The scene pays homage to any DJ whos made demo tapes using a pause button on a tape recorder, or converted a basement into a recording studio.
While this film is not about race, its so urban that it would be easy for white characters to come off as tokens. But Taryn Manning and DJ Qualls blend in smoothly with the other cast members.
Unfortunately, Singleton continues to employ hip-hop artists in his work, despite the fact that they rarely do well in his films. Ludacris is no exception here, giving a rigid and forgettable performance as successful rapper Skinny Black. He was good in Crash, but the rapper sucks at playing a rapper.
Ironically, Howard does a far better job.
Hustle & Flow jibes with events typical of hip-hop culture today. In an age where rappers successfully market their bullet wounds, if not their deaths, the events ring true. Its worth your $8. Just understand, its hard out here for a pimp.
Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.