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Hustle & Flow


Hustle & Flow begins with a soliloquy about the nature of man, a discourse on our tragic gift of time, a pimp’s pep talk to his whore, but also a stark admission of a man stuck in time.
DJay (Terrence Howard) is no street poet, but there’s something compelling in his urge to transform the urban wasteland around him into language and beat, something almost noble in his primitive desire to make a lasting monument of the hard-boiled nothingness around him. The film is a tug-at-war between grand themes and the dirty, unpleasant reality of a mostly unpleasant middle-aged pimp, but its unflinching and uncompromising vision makes Hustle & Flow a true work of art. 
DJay lives in a Memphis that has all the charm of a barroom ashtray at four in the morning. It’s a city of rust and faded graffiti, a place where time has collapsed on top of itself, where people continue to live only out of habit and sex, lust and sin have become so common that they have no power whatsoever. Selling his whores to johns under industrial bridges or making rounds in the all-night convenience stores to score a dime bag of pot, he is a man feeding off the remains of the city. 
Like DJay himself, Memphis is stuck in the 1970s and early eighties. The rap that grew from the urban realities of that time has turned stale, rehearsed, contrived, and the city that once shook in novelty and fear has undergone a terrible stasis, and DJay embodies that paralysis perfectly.
DJay’s complacent world is disrupted when infamous rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris) – a local hero – schedules a visit to the city on the Fourth of July. Back in the 1970s DJay and Skinny Black deejayed at two local high schools, and the small-time hustler becomes obsessed with becoming a rap star when he happens to meet an old friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer. 
The two join a friend of Key’s – a white church keyboardist named Shelby (DJ Qualls) – and the crew begin making music in DJay’s dumpy house. DJay’s lyrics are forceful, but the movie doesn’t shy away from the mechanics of the process and we see how beats are layered, manipulated and changed during the recording process. The reality of the music as it’s played live in the hot, backroom of a second-rate whorehouse, is sanded clean, transformed into a commercial product. 
The music comes fast and furious, drawn from a life of hard sells and ungrateful hookers, but it also feels oddly illegitimate. When one of DJay’s girls gets surly she calls him her driver, mere arm candy, and there’s a bit of truth in her words: He’s less the bad-ass pimp he pretends to be than just another parasite in the rotten world, less a gangsta in the hood than a small-time pot dealer.
The film plays with the idea that this newest incarnation of DJay might just be another hustle -- albeit a little more desperate than those he’s pulled off in the past -- not a break from the endless stream of lies that’s made up his life. He doesn’t rage against phoniness when a golden-hearted whore buys him a lava lamp because she’s seen them in rap videos or buys him a ridiculous necklace because he’s constantly trying to remake himself in the image of the rap star.
The idea that Hustle & Flow is the story of redemption is preposterous, the work of hacks who make trailers appetizing to idiots. DJay is a despicable egoist from beginning to end, the sort of creep who would kick an infant out of his home because his whore mother isn’t turning enough tricks, a loser who would invent a past to meet his current needs, a petty monster like most of us.
It’s the filmmakers’ dedication to this ugly process that should be applauded, not the gross commercial spin intended to win over simple minds.

 

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