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Long Lonely Journey
by Chris Knipp

"Everybody gotta have a dream"

Hustle and Flow's a touching movie, drenched in local atmosphere, about a Memphis pimp who succeeds in becoming a rap artist. The actor, Terrence Howard, who was good in Crash, could be practically A-List after this one. He's a generous and charismatic performer and his DJay, a second-rate ghetto businessman with three whores that he whoops sometimes, a little pot dealing on the side, a good heart, a multi-colored 70's Chevvy and a hunger to be somebody, oozes not fake charm but soulfulness. Is this a curious variation on the whore with the heart of gold? Maybe. Though young director Craig Brewer is white, the story reflects his own recent crisis when his dad, like DJay's, died young and left him wondering what he was going to do with his life. Brewer's struggles to get a movie made parallel DJay's efforts in Hustle and Flow to crank out a demo tape, and then get local-rapper-made-good Skinny Black (Ludacris, strong and terrifyingly hard-assed) to listen and help him out.

The scenes that sing are the ones where DJay and his crew Key and Shelby (Anthony Anderson, DJ Qualls) and his woman Shug (Taraji P. Henson) sweat it out in their makeshift studio to put together the catchy "crunk" demo, "Whoop That Trick;" and a long night in a roadhouse on the Fourth of July where DJay tries to woo Skinny Black. DJay's one-on-ones with his main working girl, blonde young Nola (Taryln Manning, who played the conniving ex of Eminem's character in another rapper-makes-it movie, 8 Mile) also have a heartfelt -- if a bit too earnest -- honesty about them.

There's nothing too original about the plot-line and there are some overly sentimental moments, but if Shug's delighted face when she hears the base track she's put down or Shelby's happy rockin' to his beat are sentimental, they're all just too sweet and appealin' to resist. "A feel-good film for the frustrated pimp-cum-rapper in all of us," Hustle and Flow gets down to business fast and works out its trajectory without too much melodrama -- till the end, when things get a lot more violent and even more predictable. Making DJay into an instant doomed action hero and a pop star with a hit in the same quick final sequence is a bit much.

Ludacris as Skinny Black is as mean as mean could be. He's got the intensity many rappers have onscreen, but the director has pumped him up too much. There're some lessons about helping out others when you climb out of the muck and how you've got to tell a lie or two to live your dream. It's not the obviousness, but DJay's unease in approaching and trying to charm a powerful man that makes the roadhouse sequence worth watching. Brewer no doubt did some approaching himself. He had to struggle to get backing as much as most fledgling filmmakers do. There's a big difference between Skinny Black and John Singleton, though: Singleton decided not to just help them raise $20,000, but go for eight million, and when that wasn't forthcoming, put up the cash himself.

So this is a rags-to-riches story within a rags-to-riches story, except that in American movies, eight million isn't riches. But hey, Brewer got MTV and Paramount to distribute the film, so the Hustle has begun to Flow. For all its conventional moments, this movie is the freshest and warmest of the summer, and with its sweaty Memphis detail, it won't take us out of the heat like The March of the Penguins but deep into the heart of it. Maybe that's where we need to be.

©2005 Chris Knipp
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