It’s Hard Out Here fo a Pimp

About a week ago my dad left the following message on my voicemail: “Delia, you have got to go see this movie, it’s called Hustle & Flow. Love you, bye.”

My brain did a quick google of everything I knew about Hustle & Flow, with scant results. The marketing gurus over at MTV Films had this god-awful preview on tour that hyped the film like 8 Mile meets Boyz N The Hood meets Over the Top, only cheesier. Even though I had to acknowledge this valiant attempt to put hip-hop onscreen amid the Stealth and Must Love Dogs of it all, when I saw the trailer I rolled my eyes. I had to wonder (perhaps a little unfairly): what were my parents doing at Hustle & Flow? Or rather, what was Hustle & Flow doing in Portland? For such a liberal city, Portland is pretty whitebred, its scattered minorities grouped together like chosen de facto segregation. When Malcolm X came out, our field trip to go see the film was hampered by its geographically selective, overtly racist theatrical release. In an effort to prevent any potential post-Rodney King rioting, it was only playing at one small indie venue across town, far away from predominately black North Portland neighborhoods. Still, unsurprisingly, people came, they watched, and they made some noise. Even at age 12, there was something positively exhilarating about seeing a film like Malcolm X in a packed art theater on a weekday afternoon, people spilling into the aisles going crazy yelling and cheering at every speech. I will always thank Spike Lee for his hand in organizing my first unofficial protest rally.

Now I'm not saying Hustle & Flow is going to provoke any spirited controversy, but still, I was surprised to hear it had a Portland Playhouse stint and that my parents had seen it. My dad’s raves made me return my previously rolled eyes back to their upright and locked positions, because obviously, his opinion means more than a collective verdict from Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, Peter Travers, Anthony Lane, Movie Mom, and Larry King. Even after co-worker (and proud Cinemaholics Anonymous member) Derek tried to dissuade me from seeing the movie, claiming that he heard “a lot of old people like it,” I replied, “Well, I have old person taste in movies” and decided to give this exercise in hip-hop filmmaking a chance because, well, to be honest, I really wanted it to work.

Although I’ve gotten into the Wu Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., and other legendary hip-hop legends at various points in my life, I don’t claim to be a hardcore hip-hop fan. Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have the original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five demo tape of “The Message” and I sure as hell don’t go around with my Tupac Resurrection t-shirt like the injustice surrounding the (un)investigation of his death is yesterday’s news. But you don’t have to be hardcore to marvel at the way a great track comes together (for the best in instrumental brilliance, crank Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” on a hot, lazy day), and I love to dance (I may be a white girl from the Northwest, but IV me a couple drinks, put me on the floor and I can dance you AND Britney Spears into the ground).

When I’m not dancing like a fool, my primary interest in hip-hop stems from the lyrical wordplay. Aside from the empty “Look at me, I used to off rock down in the motherfuckin projects and now I’m a rich motherfucker with enough gold chains to feed an entire motherfuckin African nation” verse and tired dirty porn rhymes (you’re like Marilyn Manson, can’t shock me anymore, and just like the suburban high school boners generated by your visceral stripper pole conventions abroad P.Diddy’s yacht, you’re powerless against the force of pussy), I think rap has the biggest balls of any music genre, including punk rock. Maybe I’ve missed some brilliant underground gem kept quietly out of the judgmental public eye, but I have yet to see a filmmaker do hip hop justice (feel free to recommend away in the comments section if you know of such an attempt), no cinematic background check from the underprivileged circumstance of the proverbial “streets” that holds nothing back in exploring the process by which the most brutally honest rap music is created. We can hear it, so why can’t we see it?

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, rap’s best MCs dominated the intersection of racial identity and class, fictionalizing the struggle in unhinged, sometimes horrific monologue. But with the new millennium and the post-9/11 Arab target practice, a new racial paranoia has turned into a big game of make believe, a delusion of equal opportunity. Black success stories like Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell are all over the political circuit, while the welfare moms have been driven into reform-service sector obscurity. Identity politics like affirmative action are still at play, but like class inequalities, they’ve been displaced from conversation in favor of divisive morality tales ripe with Jesus and Muhammad, pure and evil, God and science. With that said, there has never been a more perfect time to watch a movie that follows a pimp and drug dealer as he pursues his version of the American Dream, effectively giving the American Dream the flip-off treatment it has always deserved.

Hustle & Flow begins with a close-up on the street philosophy-spitting, cigarette inhaling mouth of its main man, DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard). Soul music wafts in the background with the smoke rings as he sits in his parked ride with a sniffling blonde “snow bunny” hooker named Nola (Taryn Manning). Before she reluctantly leaves the car and into yet another strange man’s backseat, he justifies the hustle in way that Nola (and the audience) can understand: unlike a dog, who can sit on his ass all day, the responsibilities of man require that he go out there and do what he has to do. “So why don’t you walk over there and explain that to the motherfucker?” he suggests, looking her deliberately in the eye. Nola obeys, strutting out of the front seat as DJay takes another drag and stares into space, leaving any pre-judgments on these characters to melt in the hot Memphis sun.

As the film follows DJay’s daily grind of pimping the alley, managing strippers, dealing weed, and barely supporting his company of hookers with the profits, a street-weary midlife crisis comes into focus. Although DJay may have a searching soul, he’s no saint. Instead of looking for redemption or sympathy, he only seeks to express the brutally honest thoughts going through his head, what he calls his “flow.” By the time he runs into an old acquaintance, sound engineer Key (Anthony Anderson), on a routine convenience store drug deal, the hustle is just about up, the flow about to take over, an impending, exploding deluge of words onto a notepad.

With the help of Key, a skinny white boy beat maestro named Shelby (DJ Qualls), and the soulful backup vocals of resident pregnant hooker Shug (Taraji P. Henson), DJay lays down his flow on a demo tape. His one big chance for success is to hand the tape to Memphis-born commercially successful rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) during a homecoming visit to the neighborhood bar. Convinced that Skinny will hook him up with a record deal once he hears the tape, DJay puts everything he has into the tape. By the end of the film, DJay’s persistent yet hopeful urgency has infected everyone in his life, from aspiring record producer Key to “primary investor” Nola, tapping into potential they didn’t know they had in them. And if this ragtag team of Memphis misfits can believe in DJay, it’s a testament to Howard’s powerful acting performance that I found myself rooting for him—and the film—as well.

Hustle & Flow may not be the Great American Rap Movie, but it’s got nothing to lose by aspiring to such heights, because hey, “Everybody’s gotta have a dream.” Because writer-director Craig Brewer takes his film’s main MLK catch phrase as seriously as his characters, the result is gritty, honest, ballsy and definitely the closest I’ve come to seeing the morally indifferent, struggle-ridden creative power of hip-hop translated onscreen.


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