I called up Isaac Hayes, who’s very intimidating, ’cause he’s Isaac Hayes, for god’s sake.
— Craig Brewer, commentary, Hustle & Flow
Really, you’re just wrangling — actors and time and budget. It’s like seeing pool balls go down a wooden plank. If you start stopping balls from rolling to let other ones go, you’re kinda breaking the flow. You’ve got to just know the balls are gonna roll and you’ve gotta do the best you can to corral it. So it’s a good thing to let actors go through these scenes and come up with their own ideas because they might be better than yours and you just have to allow that to happen.
— Craig Brewer, commentary, Hustle & Flow
“I always knew that I wanted to begin this movie with somebody talking,” says writer-director Craig Brewer at the start of his commentary for Hustle & Flow. “And by the end of the movie, his journey ultimately gets him walking. So, very early on, even before I started writing this movie, I always knew how I was gonna bookend it.”
This “talking” is entirely arresting. DJay (Terrence Howard) is leaned back in his Chevy Caprice Classic, his new white girl whore Nola (Taryn Manning) on the seat next to him. Philosophizing even as he’s prepping her for the next trick, DJay speaks deliberately, like he’s thinking about each word as it slips from his lips. “You see, a man ain’t like a dog. And when I say ‘man,’ I’m talking about man as in mankind, not man as in men. Because men, well, we a lot like a dog. You know, we like to piss on things. Sniff a bitch when we can… But man, got him a sense a history, got religion. See, a dog don’t know shit about no birthdays, no Christmas or Easter bunny, none of that shit.”
By the time DJay finishes his discourse, the camera has pulled out from his lips to show his curl-pressed hair, his intent gaze, and his earnestness. “One day,” he says, “But people like you and me, man, we always guessing. Wondering, ‘What if?’ You know what I mean?”
Brewer performs his own bit of philosophy while watching DJay, admitting, “What I try to do is steal as much as I can. And I think that there’s two different kinds of creativity, there’s theft and then there’s inadvertent theft…. So I always try to begin each one of my movies with this line that kind of represents something. I’m totally stealing it from Coppola’s The Godfather, with the great opening line, ‘I believe in America.'” And with that, you know you’re in for a ride on this commentary track, as Brewer will actually shed light on his film, not only the process of making it, but also its contexts and meanings, its references and allusions. “This character,” says Brewer, “I just started writing a bunch of monologues.”
Even as DJay confesses to being haunted by his father’s death at his age and imagining a world beyond his own, his vision is limited by immediate needs, to ply his pimp trade. And his self-framed wisdom is a function of such limits. Though women are not men, they’re like men, he instructs Nola (who listens while absent-mindedly checking her braids), in that they also have aspirations and needs. “People like you and me are always guessing what if,” he muses. But then her next trick rolls up, and DJay sends her to work, watching her short-shortsed behind as she strides off to the customer’s ride.
Brewer considers his protagonist something new, that is, the same kind of cat he’s seen repeatedly in his hometown of Memphis, but not seen in movies. “I wouldn’t even call ’em pimps,” he says, while we watch DJay head into a sharply low-angled shot of a bar’s backroom with Isaac Hayes. “They’ll sell you anything: wheels, weed, women, whatever they got, if you’re buying it, they’re gonna get it to you. That’s what I wanted to show with this character, not the pageantry of a pimp.”
Like so many smalltime hustlers, DJay thinks he’s got it down. Endowed with a man’s sense of time and context, he believes he’s made informed choices. But his rudimentary moral sensibility can’t comprehend his own abuses. Judgmental and ambitious, he sells dirt-weed and women in Memphis (“Lot a hustlers I knew,” says Brewer, “They kinda got their weed in these little convenience stores, they’d give a call to somebody and say this is how much I need. These stores weren’t fronts for anything, it’s usually where the guy was who would supply the dealers with their weed or whatever they need”).
But DJay sees that crunk has made a star of erstwhile local boy Skinny Black (Ludacris), who appears throughout the film in seemingly parodic wide-angled music videos wielding a shotgun, posing with his Crown Vic, and skulking through backwoods (this in footage shot by “up and coming filmmaker” John Singleton, as Brewer jokes). And so Mr. Smalltime wants a piece of this escape action, imagining that getting out of Memphis with a music deal comprises forward motion. It’s the same dream that drives every wannabe rap star, everyone who wants to get out of somewhere. Money equals success. (And in fact, this story is repeated in the extras featured on this fully packed DVD, including the documentaries “Behind the Hustle,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “Creatin’ Crunk,” which focuses on Memphis’ own Al Kapone.)
Often perceptive and always provocative, Hustle & Flow doesn’t hold back from showing DJay’s grotty side: he’s selfish, short-sighted, and endlessly angry, living in a one-floor shack with his girls; in addition to Nola, the household includes lap-dancer Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), her young son, and the very pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson), DJay’s loyal “bottom bitch.” The women are surely caught up in stereotypical roles, arguing with or supporting their man, who in turn sells their time to any creep with $20.
The actors bring detail and poetry to these characters, but they’re essentially women according to DJay, without stories of their own. Occasionally, alternative perspectives peep out, but DJay finds it hard to grasp that Nola, the girlish prostitute he treats to popsicles and for whom he feels “big love, like a brother,” might have aspirations beyond what he offers. When she declares, “I want something, I don’t know what; everybody’s got something important going on in their lives,” he asserts that she’s his “whole operation.” It’s not what she has in mind, but neither can articulate another possibility.
Like Nola, Shug has a sense of something else. When she describes a recent nightmare (in which she gives birth to a dog, then finds herself “breastfeeding a big old catfish”), she thinks it through and concludes it’s because she fears the unknown. Such fear, of course, afflicts everyone in the house. DJay makes an earnest effort to wrestle with this fear when he gets hold of an old Casio keyboard. Recalling his own childhood, when he had a similar device and had dreams beyond his current state, he’s inspired to make music, specifically, to “express himself” through hip-hop.
And so he decides to make a demo tape, with the help of old friend/sound engineer Key (Anthony Anderson) and church pianist/vending machine stocker Shelby (DJ Qualls), who brings his beat machine. The three spend hours and hours putting together a couple of tracks, titled “Whoop That Trick” (originally “Beat that bitch,” reshaped by the commercial-minded Key) and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” for which Shug provides a sultry, heartfelt hook, and the complex series of looks on her face when she hears herself on tape tells more stories than the script affords her.
On one level, Hustle & Flow is a standard boy-with-a-dream saga. (Brewer cites Purple Rain as a “big influence.”) But while the production scenes are surprisingly moving (Anderson’s canny performance is revelatory), the movie is really less a narrative of one man’s achievement than it is an examination of process and conditions. Shelby situates crunk as emerging from such conditions, likening it to the blues, a return of hip-hop to the South, and a reshaping of tragedy into art; “Every man has the right,” he says, “the goddamn right, to contribute a verse.”
The belief that he has this “right” encourages DJay to deliver his tape to Skinny Black when he spends an evening at a local bar (the owner played by Hayes, whose character Brewer describes as Truck Turner after he’s “put up his guns and opened a bar”). His hopes raised and his sense of masculine entitlement aroused, DJay runs into predictable trouble. Seeming reduced to a series of clichés (prison, street cred, cd sales), DJay is actually opened out by his limits. As Brewer sees it, though he was advised to cast a rapper in the role, he decided to work with actors — Howard and Anderson — who have never had the chance to anchor a movie before, both turning in brilliant performances, both turning out subtlety where no one expects it. DJay is neither redeemed nor enlightened, and his eventual success is a function of violence and sensationalizing press, more than some version of talent winning the day at last.
But if DJay can’t fully understand what’s happened or what he’s done, Hustle & Flow gives you a chance to recognize and read his limits. Resilient in his ignorance, posing like a proud, tough guy, he can’t escape the fact that he has a sense of history and context.