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Howard lifts ‘Hustle & Flow’

Pimp turned rapper film suffers from cliches but benefits from good performances. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some rappers want to be pimps. Snoop Dogg, for example — he’s cultivated an entire career out of appropriating pimp culture, more for the kitsch factor of the accoutrements, it would seem, than for the actual peddling of women’s flesh on the street.

DJay, the unlikely hero of writer-director Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow,” is a small-time Memphis pimp and drug dealer who wants to be a rapper — not necessarily for the accoutrements, though he does acquire some bling by the film’s end, but for a reason that’s surprising in its purity, in its naivete.

For DJay, rap is an art form, a means of expressing the difficulties of the life he’s chosen. His hustle inspires his flow: “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp,” goes the breathy hook from one of his makeshift tracks.

But regardless of the lyrics, you’ve heard this song before. “Hustle & Flow” trots out every pimp-and-ho cliche, not to mention every aspiring-artist cliche, well-worn through time from “A Star Is Born” to “Glitter.”

What ultimately elevates the film, though, is a tour-de-force performance from Terrence Howard in the starring role, as well as excellent supporting work from Anthony Anderson as his producer (proving his dramatic turn this season on “The Shield” was no fluke) and Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson and Paula Jai Parker as his girls.

Howard is a force to be reckoned with. Between this and “Crash” — in which he played an affluent TV producer, a role that could not be more different from DJay — Howard is an actor who deserves and demands your attention, with both subtlety and power.

In the midst of a mid-life crisis and wondering whether he’ll be remembered for anything meaningful, DJay begins dabbling with music, scribbling lyrics on a small notepad while hustling tricks from his beat-up car — his hooptie — on steamy summer afternoons.

Manning’s character, white-trash runaway Nola, is the prized filly in his stable. Parker’s character, the racy Lexus, gives him nothing but trouble (though she does get some wicked one-liners). And Shug (Henson), the closest thing to the love of his life, is extremely pregnant with some trick’s baby.

A run-in with Key (Anderson), an old friend from high school who’s now a sound engineer, gets the real creative process going. This is also where “Hustle & Flow” really gets going, as the two record rhymes in a rough-hewn studio (empty drink containers stapled to the walls serve as soundproofing) with the help of Shelby (DJ Qualls), a skinny, white church pianist who layers the crunk beats.

Thankfully, Brewer doesn’t take DJay too seriously; he toys with him a little, finds the innate humor in the initial awkwardness of his endeavor. DJay’s homegrown lyrics about beating hos and sipping Grey Goose are pedestrian and clunkily literal, but they’re really not much different from the kind of rap music you’d hearing blaring from cars on the street or from the television on BET.

Which brings us to the arrival of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, the real-life rapper playing a rapper named Skinny Black, who’s from the same Memphis neighborhood as DJay and whose return for a Fourth of July show strikes DJay as the perfect opportunity to hustle his demo tape.

The climactic encounter is a wonder of timing and emotion. As the two size each other up, their conversation runs the gamut — from nervous bravado to forced bonhomie to drunken rambling. All the while, DJay is waiting for the right moment to slip his tape to this person who has everything he wants, yet reveals himself to be a shell of his successful image.

DJay is fragile and fierce, frightened and full of himself, all at the same time. Then for all the suspense it accumulates, the scene unfortunately ends the way the film itself starts: as a rap cliche. But those 10 minutes or so represent the best of Brewer’s insights, and could stand as a fully contained film all its own.