This year’s most celebrated Sundance smash, Hustle & Flow is little more than a calculated bid for Hollywood megabucks, armed with a Rocky-style zero-to-hero story arc, an amalgam of popular urban clichés, and MTV-ready music tie-ins. On that level, it succeeds; first-time director Craig Brewer—he of the pointed ethnographic assertion that “everyone in Memphis talks, walks, and looks like a blaxploitation movie”—has crafted an adequate entertainment for the popcorn-and-crunk crowd.
Terrence Howard stars as DJay, a Memphis pimp in the midst of a midlife crisis. Despite his marginal success peddling Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and Nola (Taryn Manning), DJay dreams of making it as a Dirty South rapper. With the help of a sound-engineer friend (Anthony Anderson) and a curious DJ (DJ Qualls, cheekily cast), DJay transforms his living room into a studio and spits hustler ennui onto magnetic tape.
Hustle & Flow certainly has reverence for the creative process, detailing the DIY soundproofing of the room and the tedious work of finding the right beat. What sets this underdog saga apart from, say, The Commitments is that DJay’s music is uniformly bad. His first track, which evolves from “Beat That Bitch” to “Whoop That Trick,” is an unimaginative, laughable ode to misogyny in hard times. Even more egregious is “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” in which DJay employs the help of one of his hookers to sing about the travails of “a whole lotta bitches jumping ship.”
Is Brewer’s film offering a statement on contemporary hip-hop? DJay’s eventual triumph is predicated by the cultivation of a violent image rather than actual talent. Who needs the flow when you’ve got the hustle? It’s a mixed message, confused even more in a scene where DJay attempts to foist his tape on successful crunker Ludacris (who essentially plays himself) in a Memphis club. DJay attempts to win the star over by lecturing on the importance of sticking to one’s roots, but his entire impetus for giving Ludacris the tape is the desire to ditch Memphis for the big time.
As such, Hustle & Flow belittles its subject and provides a dangerous message. Talent and practice isn’t enough to realize your dreams. To get on MTV, sometimes you gotta shoot somebody. Sometimes you gotta get on the news. Sometimes you gotta bring a numbingly conventional movie to Sundance.