Hustle and Flow
Produced by Crunk Pictures and New Deal Productions
Directed and written by Craig Brewer
Distributed by MTV Films and Paramount Classics
Bulletin: Pimps and rappers have hearts; they have yearnings; they have midlife crises, for heaven’s sake! Sure, they exploit and abuse women, deal dope, and occasionally shoot one another; but, hell, they’re just folks striving for the American Dream like everyone else in our uproarious republic.
So what does a rapper-pimp’s American Dream look like? Director Craig Brewer’s first film Hustle and Flow puts us in the picture with Skinny Black (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges convincingly playing a standard-issue platinum rapper, being one himself). Skinny tells it like it is. For this beaux ideal of all would-be hip-hop niggahs, both black and white, the American Dream is “a drink in your hand and p—y in your lap.” As dreams go, this does not seem to be asking for much. Indeed, one might say it asks for much too little. What about a family, a home? What about a reasonably priced education for your kids? How about the freedom to seek truth, beauty, and goodness? Forget about it. In hip-hop culture, hormonal spontaneity is all. White-bread goals have to wait at the end of a long, long line of fleshly gratifications.
Few films this summer have been hailed as enthusiastically as Hustle and Flow. Mainstream reviewers—mostly white—seem to regard it as the second coming of Olivier’s Hamlet. Having won its first accolades as an entry in the Sundance Film Festival, Hustle has been on a roll ever since. But as I watched the film, I found myself puzzled. How were we to respond to Brewer’s story of DJay (Terrence Howard), the put-upon Memphis pimp with aspirations to become a rap artist? The character seemed such a hopeless loser that I began to think Brewer was satirizing the slender criminal swath of the African-American population that white businessmen celebrate for phat profits in recordings and films. Few images could be more satiric than Brewer’s close up of DJay sporting hair curlers as he ponders fate. “I guess I got one of those midlife crises,” he sighs with hangdog angst as he waits for one of his hos to untwist his coiffure.
In his mid-30’s, DJay seems to think he is doing manly work, ferrying his stable of three hookers on their daily rounds in his corroded Chevrolet Caprice Classic. He thinks of himself as a master diplomat in the sexual-exchange market, alternately touting his girls’ charms and firmly disciplining their wayward whims. And yet, he doesn’t feel fulfilled. He has problems. One of his girls, the marvelously named Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), is a shrew given to sassing him back when he commands her to work one back alley too many. When she steps too far out of line, calling him her chauffeur, he swiftly demonstrates his authority by throwing her and her three-year-old son out of his house in the middle of the night. That’s the kind of man he is. His other girls are more amenable, if inadvertently burdensome. Shug (Taraji P. Henson) is utterly compliant but something of a drag on his operations, since she is eight-months pregnant with the baby some John has bestowed upon her. Nola (Taryn Manning) is neither shrill nor meek. She is a wan passive-aggressive white woman, whining that she wants to do something, anything, other than marketing her body. Just what this would be, however, she hasn’t a clue. As you can see, the poor man has his hands full. It is all he can do to keep up with his regimen of hair care, and, as we all know, a man has to keep up his appearances if he is to hustle his hos and deal his dope. This is midlife crisis, indeed.
As a portrait of America’s feckless underclass, Brewer’s film gives us a vision of lost souls thoroughly marinated in the pungent self-pity dished up daily on Oprah and Dr. Phil. DJay thinks himself overworked, driving his unappreciative hos to their impromptu assignations. It never occurs to him that he might try his hand at something a little more, shall we say, respectable. Heavy lifting is not his thing. No, DJay would rather mope over his midlife crisis. That is, until the film’s catalyst shows up in the person of Skinny Black. Skinny went to the same school as DJay and ran drugs and hos himself. But now he is a success story, performing exuberantly unrepentant raps about his criminal life “back in the day” for all the world to admire. And, unaccountably enough, the world has responded by making him ridiculously rich. It is not surprising that when DJay learns Skinny is going to visit his friend’s bar on the Fourth of July—catch the symbolism—he concludes his own American Dream has come a-knocking.
Convincing himself Skinny had once been his close friend, DJay further fantasizes that his old buddy will hoist him into the rapster limelight. When a junkie customer shows up to sell him a child’s electronic keyboard and synthesizer, he senses that he has come a step closer. He has got his music. Then he meets Key, a former chum who is now a respectable married man working as a sound engineer. DJay begins to recruit him for his technical producer. Although Key is at least wary of DJay, he invites him to a recording session he is doing for his church. DJay shows up to hear a middle-aged black woman give an astonishingly beautiful rendition of a spiritual with lyrics imploring Jesus to change her life. Moved to tears, DJay clearly recognizes prophecy in her aria. He becomes even more determined to transform his life. He goes home to “spit some flow”—that is, chant an improvised rap song against the thumpingly synthesized beat of his toy keyboard—certain that it will gain him the particular salvation he hankers for: celebrity, wealth, and a plentiful supply of compliant women.
As in his other profession, DJay is glad to let others do the heavy lifting in his bid to reach rap’s empyrean. Key and his colleague, Shelby (DJ Qualls), a geeky white impresario of synthetic music, pitch in mightily. Key’s interest is commercial; Shelby’s, worshipful. The white boy is devoted to hip-hop culture. “Rap is coming back to the South,” he declares enthusiastically. “It’s all about pain and p—y.” He even sees rap as a democratizing force. “Every man has a right to contribute a verse,” he rhapsodizes. It turns out, however, that DJay’s verse is not quite as lapidary as the tune doctors expected. “Beat that bitch,” DJay chants, genuinely enough, in their first recording session, until Key informs him that the refrain may limit his ditty’s airplay a tad. Shelby comes up with an edifying alternative: “Whoop that trick.” Then he and Key piece DJay’s ramblings into a coherent lyric:
You know it’s hard out here for a pimp
when you’re trying to get money for the rent
and your Cadillac gas money’s spent
with a whole lot of bitches jumping ship.
Cole Porter this ain’t. What’s more, it isn’t DJay, either. Deciding DJay’s voice is not quite up to crooning Shelby’s lyrics, Key brings in Shug to sing them, which she does feelingly, knowing their truth all too well. This leaves DJay to mumble some standard rap doggerel in which the most frequently used words rhyme with stuck and that other pucker. This seemed to me a good send-up of the rap world: badass performers shouting vulgarly about their supposed urban ordeals and their commitment to “keeping it real,” when, in fact, their recordings are crudely manufactured ersatz. After an interminable number of recording sessions, two questions arise. First, will DJay’s composition get airplay? And second, will Time Warner make another $100 million pushing demented soul-rot on the young? Brewer answers these questions obliquely and, I thought at first, with a measure of wit, especially when two black prison guards approach DJay to ask for his help publicizing some homemade tapes of their own rapping. This scene, I judged, surely suggests that those hooked on rap’s stunted aspirations are as hopelessly trapped as if they were in a prison lockdown.
Yet, given the film’s setup, I wondered why I wasn’t laughing more. Had Brewer played his satire too realistically? Was he too close to his pathetic characters to allow for irony? I got my answers when I listened to an interview with Brewer a few days after seeing his movie. In a discussion with New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, Brewer explained that he wanted to show his audience an authentic Memphis story about a disenfranchised artist manqué who seeks redemption through his soulful creativity. So that was it. What I had thought was satire was, instead, an earnest tale, another version of Rocky—this time, on a synthesizer. As Brewer went on about having met people like DJay—sharp, inventive, but tragically ignored by respectable society—I wondered what he thought of the women in his narrative. What were their dreams? What flow might they spit, had they the opportunity? And, more generally, what did he think of romanticizing hustling low-life blacks? If I were of African descent, I would be disgusted by Brewer’s movie, maybe especially so because Brewer is white. Further, I would be incensed by the fulsome welcome that it has received from the mainstream media. Visit the movie-review website RottenTomatoes.com, and see for yourself. Hustle is being hailed as explosive, charming, transcendent, and redemptive. Desson Thomson in the Washington Post provides my favorite tribute. He found the film “a surprisingly charming story that—in certain sections—almost crystallizes into the sweetness of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical.” You could shellac your basement with condescension this thick.
This is all the more depressing since the performances are all rather fine, and Howard’s, excellent. In his interview, Brewer mentioned that Howard despises rap, which helps explain why he alone seems to know what is needed in this morally and aesthetically confused film. He plays DJay as a moral imbecile who belatedly and confusedly awakens to his mortality and dimly realizes he must account for himself. Unfortunately, DJay is so culturally ignorant that he helplessly turns to the crassest and most cynically commercial of popular forms to express his inchoate thoughts and longings. This calls for satire. Brewer has given us drivel instead.