I was so brain dead from exhaustion this weekend that all I was really good for yesterday was sitting around and watching DVDs, even though I had meant to go into the office. I am really glad I stayed home though, because I managed to catch one of the best movies I have seen in recent years: Hustle & Flow starring Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taraji P. Henson, Taryn Manning, DJ Qualls, and Paula Jai Parker.
My husband and I had passed it over in the past during various trips to Blockbuster because it appeared to us as though it were just going to be a glorified rap video of the bling-and-hos variety. Oh how wrong and misguided we were.
Hustle & Flow is the story of Djay, an impoverished two-bit pimp from Memphis whose old dream of become a rapper is rekindled when a famous rapper, Skinny Black, from the neighborhood plans a trip home for the Fourth of July. Djay is barely staying afloat financially, and he is not really doing anything with his life except chauffering his hos to their jobs (Nola, a prostitute, played by Taryn Manning and Lexus, a stripper played by Paula Jai Parker) and dealing pot. Djay runs into an old friend from high school, Clyde, (Anthony Anderson) who knows how to record music. Clyde is living a bourgeois life with a nice house, a steady job, a respectable wife, and membership in a local church, but slowly Djay persuades Clyde to help him record a rap demo to give to Skinny Black.
It all sounds formulaic, but it's not. First, the movie provides an incredible level of detail about the lifestyle Djay lives and it seems authentic. You find yourself sucked into this alternative world of poverty, prostitution, and drug dealing and, by the end of the movie, you feel as though you know this world and have lived in it yourself. It does not in any way glorify the thug life, which is portrayed as a dead end way of living which the characters either desperately want to escape or to which they feel resigned because they think they have no choice. At the same time, while I kept waiting for someone to exhibit really bad or awful or violent behavior, all the characters acted like fundamentally decent people who just happened to be stuck at the bottom of the barrel. Second, the performances by all the actors I have named are amazing and the characters all have a great deal of depth. Although the movie is about Terrence Howard's character Djay, the women characters all have their own struggles and hopes and dreams, even if they have trouble defining what those hopes and dreams might be or how to realize them. As they watch Djay working his heart out to record this demo, they slowly become infused with their own sense of wanting to do or be something more than what they are. Third, in terms of plot, the movie did not wind up in quite the direction I expected-- there was neither a feel-good, nor a feel-bad ending. But in any case, the plot was less important than getting to know the lifestyle and the characters and then watching them change.
In one of the DVD bonus segments, one of the producers said that this movie is about "the lowest of the low being exalted by creativity." For that reason, it is a profoundly moral movie in that it is all about pointing out the humanity -- as expressed in ambition and creativity -- of people that many of us would be all too willing to write off as "trash" good only for a life of petty crime.