Terrence Howard plays a Memphis pimp who decides to give hardcore rapping a shot in this arresting, gritty drama. Howard plays DJay, who pimps girls out of his beat-up Chevy Nova. When he comes into the possession of an electronic keyboard, DJay plays around with it and finds he has a talent for writing and performing hard, violent lyrics.
On its face, this seems like a typical "man rises from the ashes of his hardscrabble life to experience success and then watches it all crash down around him" kind of movie. It's not a movie about suffering, success, and redemption, in other words. But it's not as predictable as it may seem at first blush, and Howard is not your typical actor, by any shot.
DJay lives with his small stable of prostitutes in a tumble-down shack in the Memphis ghetto. As pimps go, he's not exactly Donald Trump. Some dance for an exotic club during the day and hook at night; some hook all day. But the money's not rolling in for DJay, who remains somewhat confident that he'll someday come out ahead. When he obtains the keyboard, inspiration strikes, and a chance encounter with an old classmate (Anthony Anderson) who's now a producer (of sorts) gives DJay the opportunity to jump out of the rotten life he's carved for himself.
This never feels like a typical rise-and-fall story, and that's thanks in no small part to the powerful performance by Howard, who's much better here than in the critically lauded (by some) Crash. Appearing with Howard in Crash was Ludicrous, who also has a big role in Hustle and Flow - hey, some rappers are very good actors, it turns out. Howard, aided by a crisp script from Craig Brewer, who also directed, never portrays DJay as simply a nice guy with some flaws, someone who's been handed a bad hand and is making the best of it. It's clear that DJay's made all of his own choices, and the situation he finds himself in - depending on hookers for his livelihood - is of his own doing.
But neither does the script show DJay as being entirely bad, either, as evidenced by some surprisingly tender, moving scenes between DJay and Key (Anderson) and DJay and Shug, his pregnant woman. These scenes don't come off as stilted or insincere, and that's thanks especially to Howard's strong performance. True, too, are the scenes in which DJay lays down a rap track in his home; you can feel the rage seeping through your television.
This movie might be a difficult sell to those who have trouble relating to the environment and atmosphere in which DJay operates. Undoubtedly those who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks will recognize aspects of their own lives, identifying strongly with one or more of the characters. But even those of us who have never lived in squalor, who've generally had advantages that others do not, can appreciate the intense, gray world in which DJay and his associates live. Had this been a simple, typical biography of a musician from the mean streets, it wouldn't have had near the effectiveness, the passion of Hustle and Flow. The movie intrigues you, makes you want to know what happens to DJay, even when it's obvious he's a bit of a jerk. But because he's not a stupid man, his actions cannot be painted as simply good or simply bad. Howard, in particular, is well deserving of his critical accolades here.