Shot in Memphis, where the ghost of Elvis can still be seen licking the barbecue sauce off its fingers, Hustle & Flow is fairly dripping in street cred. To tell his tale of a pimp who dreams of rapping his way to stardom, writer-director Craig Brewer doesn't take us to the city's tourist meccas ' Graceland, Sun Records. Instead, he drops us off at the bars and strip clubs, the dilapidated houses. And we spend a fair amount of time in a vintage Chevy, where Djay (Terrence Howard) conducts his business. Thanks to movies, we've grown accustomed to pimps who swim through life like sharks, sniffing for blood. But Djay is cut from slightly different cloth. He only beats his bitches when absolutely necessary.
"Beat That Bitch," it so happens, is the working title for a demo that Djay hopes will take him away from all this. And damned if we don't pull for the guy, despite having watched him trade his number-one employee (Taryn Manning, who reminded me of the young Jennifer Jason Leigh) for a pawn-shop microphone. Howard, who's been stealing movies from the leads since at least The Best Man, finally gets a chance to show us what he can do. And like Djay, he makes the most of the opportunity, layering the performance with desperation and hope, determination and fear. His opening-scene monologue, in which Djay compares men to dogs while revealing a bark worse than his bite, is a thing of beauty.
Hustle & Flow is a rather curious film ' gritty on the outside, dreamy on the inside. Brewer himself has compared it to Footloose and Flashdance, those '80s exercises in gotta-be-me wish-fulfillment. But neither of those films had a scene in which a prostitute, along with her young son, is thrown out on her ass for mouthing off to her pimp. I'm not sure Brewer resolves these contradictions; the movie seems at war with itself. But that certainly doesn't matter while you're watching it. Riotously funny in places, Hustle & Flow is also painfully sad and, yes, touchingly idealistic. What it lacks in flow it more than makes up for in sheer hustle, hawking its wares like a street-corner preacher man.