Hustle and Flow drops on the Gate City

by Glen Baity

‘“Everybody gotta have a dream,’” states the tagline for Hustle & Flow, an independent film barreling out of the Sundance Film Festival, carrying with it a handful of awards and a Garden State-sized load of hype. It’s a dream come true for a film of relatively humble beginnings, not unlike the dream that spawned (and continues to fuel) hip-hop itself ‘— ‘I came from nothing, and I made myself into something’ ‘— and likewise, there isn’t a notable hip-hop artist, past or present, who doesn’t rap about some variation of it. Hustle & Flow is among the few films that truly capture the spirit of hip-hop, so much so that even people who hate rap music might come away with a new understanding of it.

Yes! Weekly, alongside 94.5 The Beat, sponsored the Greensboro premiere of Hustle & Flow last Monday night at the Carmike Cinema on Koger Boulevard. The mostly young, multiracial crowd started trickling in about half an hour before the film’s 7:30 showtime, bringing with them a collective mood of subtle enthusiasm ‘— thanks to a marketing push largely constructed around the film’s soundtrack, most people were familiar with the title, though details of the plot were scarce. But everyone, to a degree, was familiar with the hip-hop dream ‘— as Talib Kweli aptly verbalized it, ‘“feed my family with my pen’” ‘— and the genre’s continual domination of American culture is proof that its adherents are nowhere near tired of it. Having been assured by trusted sources that Hustle & Flow was something special, I was anxious to see the film behind the hype.

I could feel it dawning on the crowd soon after the lights went down: this is no ordinary movie about the music business. Set in modern-day Memphis (the essence of the phrase ‘Dirty South’), Hustle & Flow chronicles the midlife crisis of DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard), a former hip-hop hopeful turned pimp. Coming to terms with his own mortality, he makes a push to resurrect his former life’s ambition, putting everything he has into his demo and his last urgent bid for success.

If the first image in your mind resembles something from a Dave Chappelle bit, you’re in for a surprise. A lot of this film’s freshness comes from its serious look at an oft-lampooned lifestyle: from Pimp My Ride to Playa Hataz Ball, the pimp/ho relationship has been caricatured to death, but it’s a subject rarely treated with any intellectual curiosity. Portrayed most often (and not without reason) as soulless victimizers, the figure of the pimp is so unsettling it’s either played for laughs or dismissed out of hand.

But DJay isn’t the type of pimp you’d recognize. As men in the industry go, he’s a benign force, though still an imposing one (only once does he raise his hand to one of his girls, a far cry from the brute you’d expect). In the opening scene, waxing philosophical about his place in the world, it’s evident that DJay is less a pimp than a defeated soul, someone struggling for a legacy about which he can feel proud. The film banks on the commonality of this theme to attract the average moviegoer: as Howard has said in interviews, it doesn’t matter who you are, we all want the same things. Or again, if you prefer, ‘“everybody gotta have a dream.’”

He’s right in his thinking that everyone can find something relatable in this film, but that’s not what made me like it; the same heroic Everyman can be found in Cinderella Man. Hustle & Flow’s ingenuity, which has garnered justifiable comparisons to Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, is in its structure. Instead of showing the hero’s rise from the gutter to the upper echelons of stardom, both films center on characters whose struggle is largely internal. Whether or not DJay makes it as a rapper is less important than the fact that he tries to make it as a rapper. It might be a cliché, but it’s no less powerful for it. Writer/director Craig Brewer knows where the story is ‘— not in the conquering of the rap world, but in the conquering of fear. It’s tricky territory, especially since outside observers tend to read rappers’ self-aggrandizement as evidence of a lack of depth. Hustle & Flow makes a convincing case to the contrary. It’s a challenging film, unique in its approach and perspective. You might not like the soundtrack, but get over it ‘— you got a dream too, don’t you?

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