Trying to Escape the Heat: The Memphis Blues of Hustle & Flow (2005)

To “hustle” means to survive by any means necessary. “Flow” refers to one’s verbal pace while rapping. Dr. Dre was so impressed with the flow of young Eminem’s demo that he helped transform a virtual nobody of Detroit rapping circles into one of the biggest music stars of the last decade. In the same vein, Hustle & Flow dramatizes the extreme gap between inner city poverty and the dream of a rapper’s success, and it does it with unusual restraint. It is a surprisingly modest, human-scaled film amidst so many impersonal blockbusters.

A Memphis pimp named DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard) sits in his beat-up car in the summer heat, philosophizing about man’s similarity to dogs. His voice has a lazy, quiet authority, and one starts to get caught up in his theories before one realizes that his audience is his diminuitive prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) waiting on her next John. One learns quickly enough that DJay deals drugs, keeps three prostitutes in a tiny house, and mostly does his pimping in the car (a kind of drive-by service) because a hotel would skim off too much of his profits. He is good at hustling, but he knows he’s capable of more. One day DJay happens upon an old friend Key, (Anthony Anderson), who knows how to record music. Using a second-hand keyboard, DJay impresses Key with his musical talent, and pretty soon they hole up in a room in DJay’s shack with “poor man’s soundproofing,” which looks like cardboard used to store fruit stapled to the walls, and they begin to record some music. After some trial and error, they come up with a rap song that has the refrain “Whoop that trick” that sounds like it might have some potential, and the film relaxes into a more creative groove.

Of course, Eminem has already made a similar movie called Mile 8 (2002), and the basic plot of a working class Joe striving to transform his life through his art has been done before, but Hustle & Flow succeeds in part due to Terrence Dashon Howard’s drawling charm and a nicely understated yet intense style of acting. He only gets violent when people disrespect him, and there’s a resignation in Howard’s performance that shows how he understands what his character is up against. DJay knows that there are terrifically long odds against any record executive even hearing his music, let alone his attaining radio success, and his struggle against despair makes the character so compelling.

While it has its lighter moments, the film keeps reminding us why its characters strive so desperately for escape, and there is no color bias when it comes to crappy jobs. Shelby, a white fellow musician, refills vending machines all day. Key records endless legal depositions. Nola turns tricks because she lacks the “equilibrium” to strip in a bar, and when DJay forces her to service an older pawn broker to get an expensive microphone for the studio, she cries out “I’m not your cash machine!” as she throws the microphone in DJay’s face. Craig Brewer, the film's writer and director suggests that in today’s economy, everyone gets dehumanized and exploited as a matter of course, and there’s never any illusion about what will happen to them if their dream of making it in the music industry does not pan out.

In the unflinching tradition of John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), Hustle & Flow serves as an antidote for the stereotypes and the cheesier conventions of rap videos, showing the need for a voice, what DJay calls the “right to sing out,” that underlies the gangster pose.