What film has everyone experienced recently where you walked in with positive expectations, only to have them surpassed on pretty much every level? For me that film was Hustle & Flow, the best film about a difficult musician to come out of 2005. No, this is not just a blatant dig at Walk the Line, which I found to be solidly made and amazingly stogy (though it partially is that). On its own terms and in comparison to those basic musician biopic tendencies, Hustle & Flow succeeds remarkably at digging into the world and wants of its characters, of what music means for them on a personal level and what they hope it will do for them. Specifically, it’s what DJay wants to achieve by becoming a professional rapper, and how his ambition festers into those of his collaborators. It’s hard not to think of a character in the film that isn’t sucked into the vortex of DJay’s charismatic ambition except the few who violently reject it, and who he fights back in response. Even if I expected to enjoy the film walking in, expected to enjoy the work of Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Three Six Mafia’s miraculously Oscar-winning songwork, I didn’t expect Hustle & Flow to hit me as hard as it did, digging deeper and more comfortably into a seedier character than I had expected while still giving rounded portraits of him and the people in his orbit. I didn’t expect the film to be as earnest as it was about DJay’s dreams, his anxieties, and for everything I liked about it to be handled even more dexterously than it was. In short, I expected everything to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this fantastic.
My very first sign that I was in for something wonderful came within seconds, as DJay tells a character we can’t see about the profound difference between mankind and dogs. It’s a killer monologue in itself, the power of it heightened by Terrence Howard’s performance of that speech, the intensity of his delivery and of his gaze at whoever he’s talking to, and the slow pan from his mouth that reveals we are inside a crappy car. I’ve never seen a black character so visibly operating on a low income saying something so weighty, let alone at the opening of the film, and not without something taking the piss out of it right after. Instead, we cut to the person he’s talking to, and find her to be in serious consideration of his ultimate question – What do you wanna do with your life, and what will you do to get it? This woman is a prostitute, played in blonde mini-braids by Orange is the New Black’s Taryn Manning, and her ruminations on that question are muddled both by DJay’s actual designs in asking the question – trying to make her more confident about working the streets – and that he cuts her off before she can think of an actual answer as a car pulls in next to theirs, and Manning’s Nola hops out of the car to take care of him.
From here we are slowly and surely introduced to the people that surround DJay and will end up assisting him as he tries to put his mixtape together. The impetus behind it, to burn a tape in time for the Fourth of July party in celebration of underground local turned platinum-album rapper Skinny Black that DJay at best kind of knows but has never met, would smack of Obviously Sad Pipe Dream, if not for how seriously and sincerely it’s handled on every side. The commitment from every contributor is palpable, and everyone involved brings their own reason for wanting to help DJay make this tape, as much for themselves as it is for him. Old school friend Key sees this as a way to make it big, get a real recording studio, and move beyond recording gospel albums and court depositions. Nola still can’t quite figure out what she wants but knows enough that she doesn’t want the life she has. Even if DJay doesn’t know Skinny Black, he’s as confident about his ability to hustle him as he is in his ability to use his music, his prostitutes, his allies, to get what he wants. We see his seriousness not just in how he commits himself to his music, but the way he removes obstacles in the way of that ambition. Neighbors are bribed, expensive equipment is exchanged for the women in DJay’s employ, two people are kicked out of his house after one belittles his ambition as a rapper and a hustler (the other can do nothing but watch and leave). His truest ally is the sweet, anxious, heavy pregnant Shug, happy to help in whatever way she can. The giving of a gift to DJay, Key, and sound-mixer Shelby is the most validating encouragement DJay receives the whole film, and one he rewards in kind soon after. In fact, Hustle & Flow is generous enough to let most of its characters end the film at a better place than where they started it, even if it’s not near the place they were expecting to finish.
Still, the most interesting steps taken in validating DJay’s ambitions is the construction of his character and his paragon ideas about Skinny Black and his tale of success. Black’s beginnings as an underground rapper whose tapes lit up Memphis inspires DJay to no end, believing their mutual talents would make them kindred spirits while nevertheless projecting a love and loyalty to Memphis onto Black that he has no way to corroborate from Black until the party. The casting of Ludacris legitimizes Black as a genuine success, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything DJay is hoping he will be is reliant on his own ideas about the man and what he can do to get his way. More interestingly, DJay’s admiration of Black’s road to success in no way leads to him considering taking the same path to break out. Yes, he wants to be on the radio, but his first and only presumed stop is to put that cassette tape in Skinny Black’s hand however he can, fully trusting Black will listen to it, and piggybacking a rise to fame off Black’s endorsement of his track. Repeatedly in the script, DJay is confronted by characters who fear he’ll use them or know he already has in order to get what he wants, and the biggest success writer/director Craig Brewer and Terrence Howard pull over us is how fully this remains true even as we’re shown DJay’s talent in the recording studio. The man is a talented rapper, but Howard plays scenes like his introductory conversation with Nola, his promise to get Skinny Black to back the album, his actual conversation with Black, all in the same kind of seductive, charismatic key. The power and conviction of his words, no matter how effective (or not) they are on whoever he’s talking to, have the slightly hollow edge of someone who knows that, more than anything, what he’s saying is what the other person wants to hear so that they’ll do what he wants. His approach is textured differently enough depending on who he’s talking to, but we’re still able to see when he’s grasping at straws versus when he knows he’s completely in charge of the situation, able to see the suggestibility of his words without always knowing his sincerity. The way he approaches his success as a rap artist is exactly the same way he approaches his success
What’s equally impressive in Howard’s performance is that DJay maintains a genuine level of unpredictability in how he interacts with people. The earlier mentioned bribing of his neighbor, the trading of a prostitute for a piece of sound equipment, his affection towards a gift from Shug, none of these scenes start with the indication that Howard and Brewer are going to be taking them there. His long conversation with Skinny Black shifts on a dozen emotional beats, each uncomfortably tense as we try and guess what DJay is thinking, watching him strategizing to hustle Black and get him what he wants. If there’s a certain level where you know his warmest reactions are undeniably sincere (most often in his interactions with Shug), it makes his most violent responses matter all the more when he unleashes them. His abandoning of a character who verbally disparages him is upsetting on behalf of everyone in the room, and the tremors where he’s clearly struggling to captivate Black are all the more troubling because we have no idea what he’ll do if Black laughs him out of the bar. It’s almost too easy to compare this to Walk the Line, but what Howard’s hypnotically charismatic, ambitious, and abusive performance does is put Hustle & Flow only a stone’s throw away from Synecdoche, New York, another film about a self-absorbed artist whose ambition is constantly threatening to collapse not just his life but an ever-growing cabal of supporters and collaborators who’ve thrown their lot in with him. We learn about DJay with every interaction he has, each one artfully weaving together a full portrait of the man inside a lowkey, charismatic interpretation by Terrence Howard that elevated the whole project for me.
And yet, like the best leading performances, his interpretation is generous enough to let other characters refract off him as much as they refract onto him, finding room for his castmates to shine in a film that nevertheless is completely in his headspace. The good-dude qualities and unearthed ambitions of Anthony Anderson’s Key are as palpable as the questioning loyalties of Taryn Manning’s Nola. DJ Qualls stoner sound-mixer Shelby registers as convincingly as Paula Jai Parker’s fed-up stripper, Elise Neal’s incredibly small arc as Key’s conflicted but generous wife, and Ludacris’s egotistical but seemingly receptive take on Skinny Black. Taraji P. Henson, a million miles away from her cat-glamour persona as the sweaty, genteel, unsure of herself Shug, does wonders in putting forward her essential goodness and decency, second only to Amy Adams’ Junebug that same year in a similar kind of part. Henson’s delicate work as Shug gives the film a tender center it at times seems inhospitable to, and does astonishing work in a long sequence where she is coached into singing the hook of one of DJay’s tracks, giving a memorably awed response to hearing how it’s been mixed into the track. Perhaps even better is her giddy enthusiasm when giving him gifts at two different points in the film, once leaving before she has a chance to respond, the other time delighted and overjoyed by his response.
If anything, Three Six Mafia gives Brewer and Howard even more support with their songs, deeply specific to DJay’s homemade rhymes and the autobiographical qualities of his lyrics. They’re the songs he for sure would write about himself, and the staging of them firmly roots the film in the world of one creating music, rather than the strange semi capital-M-musical stagings of Walk the Line. Some musical performances in that film functioned as direct commentary on the situations and relationships of the character, while others are allowed to just be performances, and on top of all that we a treated to the sight of June Carter writing Ring of Fire in direct response to witnessing another one of Johnny Cash’s meltdowns. Hustle & Flow’s are very much the creative outlet for a man writing about his own life, for better and for worse, but they’re allowed to be deeply personal and resonant while still being jams in a way that Walk the Line could never balance as deftly. The recording sessions are some of the most exuberant sequences in the whole film, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the characters and the surges of creativity and creation going on between DJay, Key, and Shelby. Egg cartons stapled to the walls are interesting visual textures and vivid signifiers of just how much DJay and his cohorts are scraping this homemade operation together from nearly nothing.
I’ve said already that Hustle & Flow leaves its characters somewhere that’s better off from where a less generous film might leave them, even if it’s not where they were initially hoping for. Still, Brewer’s smart enough to dilute the idea of just how well any character’s been left off, or what they’ve gotten out of their new lives. Nola’s go-getter, in-charge revivification still relies on her pulling the same tricks in a more business-like outfit, and probably doomed to be undone once DJay is able to step up again; Key, Shug, and Shelby are all back to the same gigs they did before, waiting for DJay to get out of limbo. DJay himself ends the film talking to two characters who have a proposition for him much like the one he gave Skinny Black, and his smirk of a response doesn’t indicate in the slightest whether or not he’ll help these men as much as Black helped him. This already on top of him giving an impassioned speech about the dreams we tell ourselves only for the ironic reveal of DJay somehow getting one step closer to achieving his, in spite of the previous ten minutes. Hustle & Flow leaves itself and its characters deliciously open-ended, signalling potential for plenty of paths for these people to follow without signalling any one, obvious road about to be taken. Then again, the film had been doing this for most of its run time, obfuscating an obvious trajectory through sheer specificity of its characters, their situation, and their performers. It’s a triumphant film, not just better than it looks at face value but stupendous on its own merit. And yet, once you start it, it’s power is undeniable. On almost every side the film delivers the best possible version of itself it can give, and damn is it a treat to savor.