Besides heartfelt direction by first-timer Craig Brewer, the film features a breakthrough performance from Terrance Howard. Following his eye-catching role as the frustrated TV director/husband in “Crash,” Howard burns up the screen in his “Hustle and Flow” portrayal of DJay, a pimp/drug dealer struggling to make a name for himself in rap music.
DJay’s day-to-day hustle with his three prostitutes, pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Hanson), stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and skinny Nola (Taryn Manning), is eking out a living. He barely keeps gas in his old Caprice Classic and a roof over his rundown Memphis house.
When he learns that big-time rapper Skinny Black (real hip-hop star Ludacris, aka Chris Bridges) is returning to the ‘hood, DJay sees it as his one chance to pitch his own music product. The problem is that he doesn’t have a tape, much less a CD... just a whole lot of desire.
So he hooks up with childhood buddy, frustrated music engineer Key (Anthony Anderson), and the soundman’s white Sunday school sidekick Shelby (DJ Qualls) to produce a makeshift rap recording. They nail pieces of egg boxes on the walls of a room in DJay’s home, bring in some basic equipment and start the sessions.
The process of creating this minor musical miracle is fascinating. It’s gut wrenching as the motley crew put heart and soul into the simple songs that show true talent and tie the team together harmoniously. A scene which shows Shug’s transformation into a backup singer is genuinely life-affirming.
However, Brewer sets our hip-hop hero up for a crushing defeat when he confronts Skinny in a local dive where the owner is played by music legend Isaac Hayes. After the emotional roller coaster which ends in disaster, DJay does receive unlikely redemption in the film’s coda. The upbeat ending is a bit of a copout, which may give actual pimps and hustlers false hopes about making it as gangsta rappers.
“Hustle and Flow” is a solid achievement for Howard, Brewer and executive producer John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”), well deserving of the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival.
It certainly serves as an antidote to those hostile to hip hop.