First-time writer/director Craig Brewer misses more than he hits with his "8 Mile wannabe", rags-to-riches story of a man's journey to find his fortune. He has a well-developed artistic vision and he definitely knows where to put the camera for the best shot. But it's his contemptible story that ruins the show. Its subject matter of prostitution, drug dealing and gangbanging is offensive, cruel, unintentionally funny in many places and downright insulting in most.
Hustle & Flow is the story of a down-and-out pimp looking for redemption on the mean streets of Memphis. DJay's prostitution ring (Terrence Dashon Howard) barely provides enough money for survival, so he deals drugs on the side to help make ends meet. He surrounds himself with a houseful of hos that includes his most successful moneymaker Nola (Taryn Manning), his pregnant stripper girlfriend Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and a revolving door of pimps, hookers, and various and sundry characters of ill repute. Encouraged by the success of Skinny Black (Ludacris), a local musician who hit the Gangsta Rap big time, and empowered by a cheap Casio keyboard synthesizer, DJay enlists the help of an old high school acquaintance to set up a makeshift recording studio in his house. Together they hope to create a successful demo tape and to get it in the hands of Skinny Black when he returns back home to attend a party.
Hustle & Flow is never a pretty film as Brewer successfully depicts the more distasteful aspects of the seedy underworld of prostitution. DJay is quite demanding of his hookers, but he never gets overly violent towards them and usually makes the right decisions. While I still felt no sympathy for him, Howard's milder, gentler depiction does mask his less-than-admirable traits and opens the door for certain viewers to be a bit more inclined to root for his success.
Air conditioning is a prized commodity in the sweltering humidity of Memphis and Brewer creates a resonant sense of place beneath the grimy viaducts of the Mississippi River. Everyone is always coated in a shiny gleam of sweat and I often found myself tugging at my shirt collar wishing for the A/C to be turned up a bit.
Call me heartless, but it's not quite right to so willingly swallow Brewer's spoon-fed sympathy. I understand that this is probably a fairly accurate depiction of a not-so-uncommon way of life, but it doesn't mean I have to like it or even accept it. Successful rags-to-riches movies require the viewer to buy into the means and usually that demands following the rules of a respectable society. Films like Rocky, Rudy and even 8 Mile thrive on genuine sympathy derived by characters that demonstrate hard work and an honest living. The despicable characters and their dishonest lives make Hustle & Flow, as a whole, seem forced and overly self-important. It's as if Brewer is forcing us to buy into his plastic brand of synthetic sympathy. Now show me a man who rejects a life of crime to make the big-time and you're on the right track.
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