Thursday, 12 October 2006

Hustle & Flow (2005)

8 Mile with black men?

Perhaps Craig Brewer was such a great fan of James Toback’s Fingers, a film about a small-time mobster who, through a chance meeting with a figure from his childhood, aspires to be a professional pianist. And maybe he saw how French director Jacques Audiard did a rework of the same territory with his even grittier and more realistic The Beat That My Heart Skipped last year. So why not remake Fingers with an African-American pimp reaching for his dream of becoming a professional gangsta rapper?

The joke here is many professional gangsta rappers in real life grew up in comfortable middle-class suburbs, their posses actually hangers-on acquired after their climb to commercial success, and their persona a carefully cultivated image calculated to give the impression of street credibility. In Hustle and Flow, Djay (Terrence Howard) is the real thing. While rappers talk about pimping their girls – of course, in a metaphorical sense – our hero actually runs a daily operation with 3 girls under his charge. While rappers talk about smacking their girls – of course, most of them just wish they could, those armchair misogynists – Djay mixes his tender care (he sermonises to white trash Nola about the need to have a dream) with an iron fist (instead of smacking a disrespectful charge, he hurls her furniture, clothes, and baby out on the doorstep).

It’s a tough life, pimping, as the soundtrack for this movie goes, and when Djay turns the age where his father died prematurely, the imminent return of a local boy who made it big as a commercial rapper triggers a dormant childhood dream of making it big as a musician and getting out of the slum city of Memphis. As in Fingers, the reintroduction of music has a transforming effect on the hoodlum’s life and business operations. What’s better, the conflict within Djay’s soul seeps to the girls under his charge. This change is handled by Brewer in a realistic manner – we don’t expect Djay to renounce his evil ways, or his girls to quit their career and enter university – it would border on grotesque comedy. And like Audiard’s hero, Djay is full of passion and honesty but lacking the true talent for music.

What sets Hustle & Flow apart from Fingers and Beat is a little help from Djay’s friends, who take time off from their more legit, middle-class but equally deadend lives and jobs to help him record a demo tape. While the conceit of this movie and the gangsta rap music may not appeal or feel right to everyone, the way tiny bits and pieces congeal together slowly in their jam sessions has the authentic and electrifying thrill familiar to true musicians. The end product of their recording sessions may be yet another hackneyed and uncreative misogynistic poem, but the process was at least riveting to watch.

For all its realism in certain aspects and its arthouse aspirations, Hustle & Flow is severely flawed on two counts, both stemming from Craig Brewer’s desire to have his cake and eat it. While caked with the veneer of gritty realism, the film nonetheless plays like a fairy tale, with very predictable plot points and clichés. One wonders what to make of the middle-class, church-attending, uppity wife of Djay’s producer, who detests the moral filth of Djay the moment she sets sights on him, which of course causes a strain between her and her husband which will be neatly resolved through a sit down session by film’s end. Or how about the unflinchingly uncritical “Stand by your man” routine that Djay’s girls pull? Worst of all, Brewer loses the plot and allows the untalented (but well-produced) pimp achieve his big dream – all without any sense of self-irony or even criticism of the actual gangsta rap industry. The feel-good ending is vastly at odds with the entire premise and the slow set-up. And after all that is said and done, this promising and very well-acted tale careens into a typical rags-to-riches telemovie.

That the film is flawed in such a manner is a pity. Nevertheless, the good cinematography and all-round excellent acting – especially by Terrence Howard – should be a reason to watch this film, provided you are also a hip-hop or gangsta rap fan.

First published at incinemas on 12 October 2006

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