Judge Brendan Babish knows pimpin' ain't easy. But rapping about it doesn't seem so hard.
Our review of Hustle And Flow (HD DVD), published July 19th, 2007, is also available.
Everybody Gotta Have a Dream.
After writing the script for Hustle & Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer figured he would need a bare minimum of $400,000 to shoot the film. He shopped the project to every studio in town (50 by his producer's count), but no one was interested in financing a white director making a film that would appeal primarily to urban audiences. Then, veteran director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) got involved.
Singleton loved the script so much he put his house up for collateral in order to secure a $2.8 million dollar loan to cover production costs. When Hustle & Flow made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, Brewer was hoping to secure art house distribution, and then later make a profit on DVD sales. Instead, the movie ignited a bidding war, and was picked up by Paramount Pictures for a festival record $9 million dollars.
Facts of the Case
DJay (Terrence Howard, Crash) is a low rent, drug-dealing pimp living in Nashville. On sweltering summer afternoons he sits in his car, waiting for tricks to drive by and show an interest in the scantily-clad woman in his passenger seat. To make the time pass, DJay waxes philosophical to his lackadaisical employee Nola (Taryn Manning, A Lot Like Love). The gist of DJay's jive is that he is not content with his life as a pimp. He wants to be a rapper.
DJay recruits a childhood friend, Key (Anthony Anderson, The Shield), and Key's "light-skinned" associate Shelby (DJ Qualls, The New Guy), to help him lay down some tracks. They assemble a makeshift home studio. They recruit one of DJay's ladies for backup singing. DJay puts together a mix tape of his work and hopes to get a copy of it to an old friend he hasn't seen years, Skinny Black (Ludacris, Crash), who has emerged from the small-time Memphis music scene to become an established rapper. Skinny will only be in town for one night. If DJay is going to have any chance to make it in the music industry—and get out of the pimpin' business—he has to get that tape in Skinny's hands.
Hustle & Flow may offer an unflinching look into the world of pimps, drugs, and prostitution, but it's not about that. It's a movie about chasing your dreams and new beginnings. DJay may be a pimp, but that's not who he is. DJay is a rapper who just lost himself somewhere along the way. This film could just have easily been about a man who longs to be a dancer, but somehow finds himself stuck in a dead-end job, working in a cubicle.
Most films about drugs and prostitution are hopelessly dark and violent. Most films about adults chasing their dreams are cynical or naïve. Hustle & Flow is none of those. Somehow it manages to balance its grim subject matter with an almost childlike exuberance, without compromising either. It's this equilibrium that makes the movie so engrossing and inspiring.
The film's portrayal of pimping may be somewhat restrained (there is no violence, hard drug use, or explicit sexual situations), but it never sugarcoats or glorifies the lifestyle. We see DJay at work, shoving Nola off into the cars of suspicious looking johns. We see the squalid house he shares with three of his ladies, one of whom is pregnant (and sweating uncomfortably in the midst of a Nashville summer). We see the hopelessness of DJay's existence.
Then DJay trades a baggie of weed for a child's keyboard. He retreats into a back room of his house and begins composing rhymes to accompany the keyboard's simple beats. For the first time, we see DJay come alive. Here, the movie segues from a gritty drama into an affirmation of creativity and ambition. The scenes of DJay rapping in his back room, with his friends whooping him on and his prostitutes pumping their fists, are both educational (for those of us who know little about hip-hop production) and exuberant.
Perhaps most strikingly, the songs are good. Real good. Many films about musicians have been derailed by a poor soundtrack (i.e. Josie and the Pussycats). Hustle & Flow has the opposite effect. On his commentary track, Brewer mentions how audiences in Memphis would pump their fists in time with Terrence Howard's beatboxing. When a movie audience responds physically to a song, you know it's good.
Howard's performance is often mentioned in Oscar handicapping, and it's easy to see why. When he first begins rapping in his studio you might start pumping your fists as well. Anthony Anderson does a great job providing a little comic relief as DJay's straight-laced producer. And DJ Qualls should get credit for taking the role of Token White Guy and holding his own. Thankfully, Qualls plays the character straight, and never goes for laughs by employing stereotypical, un-hip white mannerisms.
Craig Brewer provides a great commentary track for his movie. This isn't surprising, since, after struggling for four years to get his film made, Brewer has some great stories to tell. When he first moved to Nashville, his wife worked as a stripper. After his father died, he used his inheritance to finance his first movie. His executive producer had to put his house in hoc to get the film made. Brewer also knows a lot about the music scene in Memphis. His commentary is a great primer and testament to that city, which he calls "the Mesopotamia of American music."
In addition to the commentary track there are assorted making-of featurettes. "Behind the Hustle" is a typical behind-the-scenes documentary featuring read-throughs and discussions of sub-text. "Creatin' Crunk" documents the creation of the film's dynamic soundtrack. "By Any Means Necessary," which is the most interesting featurette, chronicles the countless difficulties encountered to secure financing for Hustle & Flow. While casual movie fans may not be interested in learning about all the work that goes in to funding a movie, this featurette could be an invaluable resource for anyone who is thinking about getting involved in the film industry. And if you are, you've been warned. Like pimpin', filmmakin' ain't easy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many reviews of Hustle & Flow have taken issue with what they see as the film's misogynistic undertones. DJay, the movie's hero, is an unapologetic pimp. He writes songs glorifying the profession. He offers up Nola to the owner of an audio store as compensation for a microphone. While I agree that the movie does not fully explore the physiological consequences of exploiting women, one has to realize that the film is only two hours long. Besides, Hustle & Flow is about DJay and his music, not about his small stable of women (however tragic their situation is).
That said, this is not a film the fellas are going to want to watch with their ladies on a Friday night.
Even if you are repulsed by the subject matter, you should still find Hustle & Flow an entertaining and surprisingly uplifting film.
Let's see…soliciting prostitution, drug possession with intent to distribute, violation of sound ordinances. I might lose my judgeship for this, but what the heck: not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director Craig Brewer
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