The Viceman Cometh
A Knucklehead Pimp Tries To Turn His Life Around In The Impressive Hustle and Flow
What Virginia-born, Memphis-bred writer/director Craig Brewer achieves with his Hustle and Flow is damn near brilliant. He humanizes the sizzurp-sippin’, gold-teeth-grinnin’ crunkards of the South that get mad radio play but little respect from the hip-hop heads raised on Rakim, KRS-One, and Nas. And in the process, Hustle and Flow legitimizes Southern rap and spotlights the fact that what the music lacks in substance or lyricism it makes up for with raw emotion.
Grounding Hustle from the very beginning is its arresting portrait of a Memphis pimp, DJay (a dazzling Terrence Howard). DJay isn’t a Bishop Don “Magic” Juan pimp—he’s got no flashy jewels, no money-green suit, and no Rolls Royce. In fact, DJay’s life and lifestyle is completely void of glamour, let alone any reason to look forward to better times. He rolls around in an old, beat-up automobile with mismatch fenders and no AC while his main ho, Nola (Taryn Manning), fetches something like 20 bucks a trick.
You can almost feel the gritty, musky air surrounding them when they sit in the stuffy car in sweltering Memphis heat pondering what the rest of their seemingly pointless days may bring. They live with Shug (Baby Boy’s Taraji P. Henson), a ho knocked up with a trick baby, and Lexus (She Hate Me’s Paula Jai Parker), the sassy stripper/in-house hater. And each carries his or her own palpably personal, low-key misery.
Hustle’s crux is “everybody gotta dream”—as in both “got a” and “got to.” And though it is a fairly generic fairy tale, Hustle avoids some of the obvious schmaltz you expect from such a story, thanks entirely to Howard’s commanding performance. He is genuinely believable as the charismatic and vulnerable lowdown pimp who wakes up in the middle of the night to realize that at 28 he’s creeping up on the age his dad was when he died of a heart attack. And now the seemingly shallow pimp is hitting the midlife crisis of the young black man from whom America doesn’t expect anything. So he decides to muster up the courage, resources, and drive to put together, however frantically, the one other thing he think he can do: a demo and a rap career.
Howard nails the desperation and frustration in this seemingly cliché character. He rocks the lazy drawl—his garbled “y’all”s, accent, and cadence are on point—and when the mic is on, he actually has legit rapping chops. Howard somehow finds the twisted charm in this cat, so much so that you’ll actually be rooting for him.
It’s a performance that grounds the rest of the characters, each bristling with a desire for more out of life. Workhorse comedic actor Anthony Anderson inhabits DJay’s ex-classmate Key, the churchgoing, domesticated man who is bored with his wife, the smoking-hot Yevette (All of Us’ Elise Neal). Key so yearns for something to call his own that he lets DJay talk him into producing/engineering a demo. Everybody orbiting the lightning rod DJay is looking for something: He is sick of pimpin’, hos are sick of hoin’, and Key is just plain sick of his mundane (albeit comparably perfect) life, which has probably been the same since before he can remember.
Just don’t go thinking of Hustle as the black 8 Mile. Yeah, Eminem’s story was predictable, too—we all knew what was gonna happen at the end, with Eminem as some sort of underdog because he’s a white man in a black man’s world, profession, whatever. But in Hustle, DJay the exhausted, uneducated street hustler is life’s underdog, and you catch feelings for him whether you want to like him or not. You’ll watch him nickel-and-dime his way through his days, disrespecting women, fighting, cussing, and getting by through slinging weed and his charisma alone. But by the time he gets it together enough to record first track—titled “Whoop That Trick” no less—he’ll win you over, because you feel you know DJay, or someone like him, or sometimes even feel like him yourself. He’s an easy-to-identify-with anti-hero, a dude who has had it up to his gold teeth with being just another average nothing, and who turns his life upside down trying to rise up, the only direction he’s never fallen.
And in a time when hip-hop pop is still fascinated by the peacock-plumed pimp and Snoop Dogg is your granny’s favorite rapper, this flick sheds light on how shitty it can be actually to be a pimp. Nope, pimpin ain’t easy. And Hustle and Flow, one of he best hip-hop movies to date, argues that real pimps aren’t living large—they trying to get out.