Monday, February 27, 2006

Hustle & Flow

Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is the cuddliest darn movie about a pimp that I’ve ever seen. It seems rather unlikely that screenwriter and director Brewer has had much firsthand experience with either pimps or prostitutes. Consider Hustle & Flow as the Disney version of the underground world of prostitution.

Opening the film with main character DJay (played with touching naturalism by Terrence Howard) struggling to articulate his malaise, Hustle & Flow offers many characters who yearn for more from life. The producer needs a hit to justify his life of struggle, the pimp needs to prove that there is more to him than just hustling women, and the prostitute needs to be more than a cash machine.

As these down and out characters experience an existential crisis, the film suggests that after all, we humans are pretty similar. The producer’s wife Yevette, played by Elise Neal, acts as a stand in for the audience when she eventually accepts the seedy world into which her husband has entered by bringing the group a peacemaking plate of sandwiches. Through her Brewer demonstrates that in fact, we can all get along. The pimp, it seems, isn’t that different from the preacher.

Following the typical Hollywood formula for a film about an artist, Brewer’s script proceeds in standard fashion: first the proof of talent, then the creation of the art (usually depicted through some sort of musical montage), the knocking on doors sequence (trying to get the big break), the setback (or moment of despair), and finally the climactic (typically successful) conclusion. Because Brewer’s characters are so lowly and pathetic, these moments of ecstatic discovery work particularly well: producer Key discovering that DJay has something to say through rap music; Shug, the cowered pregnant whore, discovering that she has a voice; and the glorious moment in which all the pieces come together to create one great song. These moments are effective because Brewer makes his characters sympathetic: he makes you root for the underdog, even if the dog is a pimp.

The women in the film are less characters than branches of DJay’s dominant personality. Despite Schug’s (Taraji P. Henson)undercurrent of fear, we never see DJay raise his hand to a single one of his collection of prostitutes. When directly challenged by Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), however, who supports the “family” by stripping, DJay throws her and her toddler out of the house. Brewer ends her story there because once she is no longer connected to DJay, she ends as a character for the audience. [Editor’s note: besides, seeing Lexus have to sell her baby to earn money for crack would be a downer and might make DJay less likeable.] The female characters undergird Brewer’s depiction of DJay’s redemption. They are functional tools rather than fully developed characters in their own right.

We see little of the behind the scenes world of prostitution: in fact, we barely see any nudity or sex at all. Everything truly disturbing happens in alleys and behind doors. While DJay’s main “investor,” prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning), does her thing with the johns who happen by, we wait in the car with DJay. Nola never appears with bruises or any other indication of rough treatment, and the drug most frequently ingested by characters in the film is marijuana. Master mixer Shelby (DJ Qualls) complains to Nola about his job restocking vending machines, and she jokes that until she heard his story, she thought her job sucked. Sure, restocking vending machines and prostitution: same thing, really.

Cleaned up though it is, Hustle & Flow offers many a tense moment. I actually paused the DVD when DJay approached the moment of his greatest test: a meeting with successful local boy, Skinny Black, to whom DJay intends to give his demo. Knowing the film had proceeded all too smoothly, I feared the likely grim ending, and the scene with Skinny Black did not disappoint. Just when I thought DJay had his dream within reach, Brewer’s script offered a twist that changed everything. Tightly written and carefully focused, Hustle & Flow employs standard Hollywood formula to great effect.

Brewer likely doesn’t intend any social commentary, and he certainly doesn’t achieve any. The real world of pimps and prostitutes, one of violence, addiction, despair, and death, is one that wouldn’t draw a wide audience. Rather than examine the underbelly of America, Brewer offers a hero we can get behind: a ragtag group of misfits who band together to achieve a collective dream. In Hollywood, a pimp becoming a rapper is the American dream.


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