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2005, dir. Craig Brewer
116 min. Rated R.
Starring: Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Chef.

Review by Noel Wood

To some people, 2005 will be remembered as the year of Terence Dashon Howard, the 36-year-old actor who managed to pull out multiple performances that were far better than the movies they were in. I never saw him in , but I did see him in Crash, as well as his much-heralded leading role in Hustle & Flow.

That's not to say that I found Hustle & Flow to be as terribly offensive as I did Crash. While both films are a little more self-important than they need to be, I actually found myself at least entertained by this film. However, there's a lot to complain about, and for some reason, much like it is with Crash, there aren't enough critics with the balls enough to do it.

I'm lampin', I'm lampin', I'm cold cold lampin'!

Hustle & Flow is about a pimp and drug dealer named Djay, living in the ghettos of Memphis. Djay pimps 20-dollar hookers out of his busted Caprice Classic and sells weed to the local club owners, all the while living with three of his 'employees'. Watching a woman sing gospel in a church triggers a mid-life crisis, and he decides that it's time to better himself by becoming a hip-hop star who instead of beating his hos will simply rap about it instead. After snagging a cheap Casio keyboard off a junkie, Djay hooks up with an old school pal named Key to record a demo, which he hopes to get in to the hands of Skinny Black, a local rapper who hit the mainstream a few years back.

So Djay cuts the record in the hot-as-balls studio with Key and his ironic skinny-white-kid sidekick Shelby, but there's something missing. Either there's too much noise in the background, or their equipment just isn't quite up to par, or they just don't have the right hook. Eventually, everything comes together, and Djay seems to have completely turned his life around. Now he just needs to make sure that Skinny Black gets a hold of the demo.

Hustle & Flow tries to deglamourize the hip-hop scene, but the final act undoes all of the goodwill that the film has built. I won't spoil it for you, but it's a real disappointment for anyone who really thinks that this character is redeemable. Of course, without too many spoilers, I can tell you that the film does a lousy job of creating the illusion that he's redeemable to begin with.

Why? He's a pimp, for crying out loud. Somehow, rapping "pimpin' ain't easy" lyrics that are as cliched and tired as they were in 1997 doesn't make up for the fact that he's a woman-beating, low-life pimp who moments ago just shoved his girlfriend and her infant son out on their asses in the middle of the night. It doesn't make up for the fact that he still uses his position to use his girls to get freebies at the local music shop. And even as his 'true feelings' for one of his girls who happens to be pregnant with one of her johns' children start to well up, you still know that the guy is a misogynistic thug.

The movie itself is such a tired story in itself that it's a surprise that so many critics are so enamored by the film. Not three years ago, Eminem did the same thing better in 8 Mile, which was just a splice of Rocky and Purple Rain to begin with. The whole thing is mildly entertaining, despite the fact that I'd seen it all before (or perhaps because of it. I really can't decide for sure.)

For an old school hip-hop fan such as myself, this movie shows how ugly the modern genre has become. Not only are the songs themselves meticulously crafted just to break on radio, but the piece-by-piece assembly displayed here dumbs the process down even further. But the worst part about it is that they're so miserably cliched, using such silly hooks and lyrics that you might almost think you're listening to a parody.

What it all breaks down to, from the "MTV Films" logo before the opening credits to the "it doesn't matter what kind of person you are, becoming a hip hop star will make people love you" moral to the story, is that Hustle & Flow feels like a hip-hop movie directed by an unhip white guy. Craig Brewer can steal from as many Blaxploitation films as he wants, but he still fails to get this movie over as something legitimate.

The film's most redeeming feature is its performances. Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, and Taraji P. Henson all do the best with what toey're given, and Ludacris repeats his Crash feat of doing a decent enough job in a small role. And of course, Howard deserves some recognition for the powerful performance he puts on here. I'm just not sure that the movie really deserves such a good performance.

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