Writer-director Craig Brewer's supposed slice of pimp life Hustle & Flow—the toast of Sundance—tells the story of Djay, a low-class pimp with a few women (one of them pregnant) under his power. But he's also a dreamer, and when he hooks up with an old high-school buddy with recording experience, Djay bullies himself and everyone around him into helping him cut a demo. But should we have sympathy for the devil?
The street flows that come out of Djay range from sideways-sexist tripe ("Whoop That Trick") to laughably un-ironic self-pity ("It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"...cry me a river, you bastard), but Djay doesn't come off as a savvy exaggerator trying to turn a trick with Lady Luck; rather, he's a get-rich-quick hopeful who's listened to enough rap records to fake it (in Howard's hands, DJay's discovery of his artistic ego is touching and subtly amusing). This might make good—if not exactly fresh—material for a poker-faced comedy, but the laughs come elsewhere (provided at the expense of scrawny white mix-master DJ Qualls). Brewer plays Djay's pathetic naiveté for tragedy instead.
The pity and fear are here, but no one this low can take a tragic fall. Terence Howard's work as Djay is sort of dazzling, but his character's unrelentingly selfish behavior makes audience identification an uphill battle. There's something to be said for rooting for anyone who's trying to do something better than what he has been doing, and Brewer shows he's capable of his own brand of B.S. bluster by having all of the characters explain why we should care. Qualls explains, "Every man has the right—to contribute a verse." Rapper from the hood Skinny Black (played by Ludacris), who represents a possible ticket to success for Djay, says, "Everybody got to have a dream."
Well, okay, but the question remains: should a pimp be rewarded with his dream? If a challenge to our expectations by way of moral equivocality is the big idea, then Hustle & Flow could be anti-heroic by nature or perhaps a movie with no hero at all. But if so, Brewer tries to have his cake and eat it too: Hustle & Flow practically plays like a hip-hop version of The Buddy Holly Story with its predictable thrill of victory and agony of defeat. Brewer's centerpiece scene captures the excitement of putting a track together, with supporting players Anthony Anderson and the exceptional Taraji P. Henson pulling their weight. The rest of Hustle & Flow, I'm afraid, is all hype.
Hustle & Flow gets a dandy special edition from Paramount, with an excellent, film-like transfer and pumpin' 5.1 and 2.0 sound mixes. On a third track, director Brewer chattily breaks down the meaning and means of his breakthrough film. Topics include his awe for his actors, his numerous cinematic inspirations (including The Commitments), the nitty-gritty about the music in the film, and the best lovemaking music.
Three featurettes allow all principal cast and crew to weigh in on the filmmaking process and final product. "Behind the Hustle" (27:19) introduces behind-the-scenes footage (audition tapes, cast read-through, and rap test sessions), some of which is shot by producer John Singleton; the first featurette moves through each key character/actor. "By Any Means Necessary" (14:39) details the parallels between Brewer's career-hustling and Djay's (note clips from Brewer's indie debut The Poor & Hungry) and culminates in 2005 Sundance-awards-ceremony footage. "Creatin' Crunk" (13:40) checks in with the Stax musicians (many of whom played on the Shaft soundtrack) who people the sessions for Hustle & Flow.
"Memphis Hometown Premiere—July 6, 2005" (4:53) assembles footage, including red-carpet interview bits, of the big day. The disc also includes 6 promotional spots (totalling 3:37), five of which feature original footage with the actors and Al Kapone tallking to the camera. Trailers include Get Rich or Die Tryin', Four Brothers, Bad News Bears, and The Honeymooners.
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