Pimp my pride

DJay (Terrence Howard) likes his women blurry and in the background.

DJay (Terrence Howard) likes his women blurry and in the background.

Rated 2.0

Midway through the new movie Hustle & Flow, written and directed by Craig Brewer, there’s a very good scene. It’s so good that it makes the first half of the film—and even much of the second—look better than it really is. The movie’s antihero, a penny-ante Memphis pimp named DJay (Terrence Howard), is recording his first hip-hop demo tape in a makeshift studio set up in his run-down home. Helping out are his producer, Key (Anthony Anderson), and the geeky engineer Shelby (DJ Qualls), who, together, in a sudden flash of inspiration, decide to lay down a backup vocal track by one of DJay’s trio of sleazy whores, the dimwitted, pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson).

Before this scene, Shug has been a figure of derision, scorned not only by DJay but also by the other two hookers—the mean-spirited Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and the underfed, trailer-trashy Nola (Taryn Manning)—and, for that matter, by the audience. Brewer encourages us to regard Shug with the same belittling contempt she gets from her housemates. But Shug undergoes a double transformation. First, she invests the hook lines that Key and Shelby have extracted from DJay’s scribbled notes (“Ya know it’s hard out here for a pimp/When you’re tryin’ to get money for the rent …”) with a bluesy ache that gets everyone’s attention. Then later, after Key and Shelby have tweaked and massaged the track for an hour or so, Shug listens to herself with something like the same wonder. Her eyes, which until now seemed unable to focus on anything, open wide in wonder. “Is that really me?” she seems to think.

Galvanized by the raw emotion of Shug’s vocals, and Key and Shelby’s shoestring wizardry, DJay’s driving rap becomes a sort of primal growl, coming from depths he didn’t know he had, and Brewer’s movie roars briefly to life. Then inconvenient thoughts intrude (the hook doesn’t even rhyme, we notice; besides, really now, are we supposed to give a damn about how tough pimps have it?), and Brewer loses the moment.

Hustle & Flow is, in fact, a string of moments that Brewer keeps losing. For example, when Shug meekly tells DJay how much singing on his demo tape has meant to her, Henson’s piteous gratitude is almost heartbreaking. Then Brewer blows it by capping the scene with an endless kiss that degenerates into a slobbering chomp-fest, going from gross to hilarious before the director finally brings himself to cut away. (“Get a room!” someone in my audience shouted.)

At its best, Brewer’s movie has the raw energy of that central scene. And there are small surprises along the way, as when DJay politely accosts a neighbor with whom he’s “had words” before, asking him just this once to please go easy on the stereo volume because they’re trying to record next-door—and then enhancing his plea with a baggie of really primo weed.

But, even at its best, Hustle & Flow never moves beyond its own clichés: not only the sexist, degrading bitches-’n’-hoes stereotypes that give hip-hop such a bad name among the strait-laced, but also the more conventional follow-your-dream stuff that’s been a mainstay of movies—especially musicals—since The Jazz Singer, supplying major themes in biopics of everyone from Beethoven to Glenn Miller to Buddy Holly.

Hustle & Flow purports to take a gritty, hard-edged look at its subject. Brewer pulls it off in bits and pieces, mainly thanks to Howard, whose performance teems with feral intelligence. But the grit and hard edges are mainly cosmetic; underneath, the movie is gooey and softly sentimental. Even as violence and prison come into the plot, Brewer seems to be offering DJay as some sort of delicate bloom struggling up through the cracked pavement of the mean streets (why, even the soloist in a church choir moves him to tears, the poor dear). But after we see how DJay treats his women (not to mention the one child who comes into his orbit), it’s hard to buy the sensitive-artist line Brewer is selling.

Despite flashes of raw energy, in the end it’s hard to tell whether it’s the sentiment of Hustle & Flow that undercuts the grit, or vice versa.