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Djay (Terrence Howard) is a pimp by day, aspiring rapper by night. With the help of assorted people in his Memphis neighborhood (including Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls), Djay builds a studio in his home and attempts to record his first song. When he hears that hip-hop superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) is heading to his area, DJay vows to do anything he can in order to grab Skinny's attention.
On paper, the storyline of HUSTLE AND FLOW seems corny. To put it simply, the flick's about a pimp who discovers that he hates his life and decides to become a rapper. I don’t know about you, but that just screams "direct to DVD DMX movie" to me.
However, HUSTLE AND FLOW is a mature and well-handled film, and you don’t even have to like rap music in order to enjoy it. The ensemble cast is FLOW's major strong point, with the definite standout being Terence Howard. He is truly amazing in this film.
I have rarely seen such a complex character onscreen, and all of said complexities are perfectly illustrated by this man's amazing performance. He is the greatest reason to see this film.
We want Terrence Howard's Djay to succeed in the rap business. We want Djay to learn to respect women (which is one of the films subplots). We want him to respect HIMSELF. We want to like the pimp, even though it's very hard to see past his flaws, and it's all because Howard completely sells us on the fact that Djay is a real, breathing person who just so happened to have a camera crew follow him around for a few days. Seriously, this is one of the better performances I've seen in a long time. The other reason to see this movie is for its genuinely electrifying recording sessions. These scenes are undeniably well-acted and energetic. They seem INCREDIBLY realistic; they truly capture what it means to create something and how that makes you feel.
A central part of the recording sessions is the way that Djay and his sound crew continually throw ideas at each other. HUSTLE AND FLOW gets the improvisational aspect of creating just right. It perfectly nails the sense of coming up with things on the spot, which is a crucial part of the creative process. I have to say, however, that the film's ending may hold some people back from truly embracing HUSTLE AND FLOW as a great movie. I myself have problems with it; the epilogue is the only blatantly questionable section of an otherwise incredibly well-written storyline.
The film should have concluded with Djay landing in jail after his confrontation with Skinny Black. It should have closed with the final line: "Sometimes you gotta lie" (if you've seen the movie then this will make more sense to you). This would have been a great way to say: "Don’t give up on your dreams." I know, it's not the most complex of messages, but it would have fit in with the rest of the movie's realistic tone better.
However, the movie’s existing epilogue, where we find out that Djay's record is getting air time and that he has earned some "street cred" due to his altercation with a known rapper, was a tad unnecessary and unrealistic. This epilogue also delivers a mixed message.
HUSTLE AND FLOW seems to be saying that unless you have been shot, or shot at, you will not be taken seriously as a rapper. Now, you could try to rationalize this questionable theme by looking at it from Djay’s perspective. He would do anything to realize his dream, and if that means "doing as the Romans do" so to speak, and being directly involved in a shootout is the only way to make it big, then so be it.
On the other hand, this message could also be taken as a criticism against the rap industry, stating that violence SHOULDN’T be seen as a claim to fame. I'm not sure I buy the latter of those interpretations; the former, violence-condoning theme seems to be more prevalent. Moreover, the film stretches the limits of believability by attempting to illustrate said theme. What really would have happened is that Djay would have gone to jail, and his song would have faded into obscurity. I think that makes for a more powerful, albeit heart-breaking, ending.
There’s no denying that HUSTLE AND FLOW should have ended more ambiguously and realistically. However, despite this flaw, the movie remains quite strong overall. I would go so far to say that HUSTLE AND FLOW is a minor classic, and definitely stands out from most other movies about musicians.
I would highly recommend HUSTLE AND FLOW to anyone, based on Terrance Howard's central performance, the natural ensemble cast, the (mostly) subdued writing, the gritty cinematography, and its authentic depiction of the adrenaline rush that accompanies the pursuit of a dream.