Friday, January 06, 2006

Hustle & Flow

The story of the Urban Black gangster trying to live the American dream has been told many times before on film. Often times with preachy, ineffective results. Mostly the result of sloppy storytelling by rap artists and their collaborators using their music video experience to tell their version of the movie Scarface. The reality is most of these rap artists have no business acting, much less making a full length feature film.

So it's surprising that John Singleton of all people, who ushered the genre in with his movie Boyz n the Hood and then practically destroyed it with movies like Baby Boy, would take a chance and produce a movie like Hustle & Flow, especially when there seems to be no demand for this type of story in Hollywood.

Surprise, surprise.

Hustle & Flow turns our expectations on it's head, and delivers a compelling, audience friendly story of a pimp turned Rap artist trying to find a way to live the Dream after a mid-life crisis-re-evaluation of his life.

What's unique about the story is that lots of the movie's energy isn't spent on trying to make the audience like the characters, or demonstrate how cool and slick the characters are. The fact is they aren't cool, slick, smart, or even likeable. But for some reason it's enough that Terrence Howard's character DJay is a human being, who happens to have a dream...... just like all of us.

Where the movie succeeds is in it's story of the underdog, it's in the package of an Urban gangster rap film, but it's still the Rocky story. The locale and the people are probably unfamiliar to most of us, but we all can relate to being the underdog.

What's also great about the film is that it doesn't judge the characters, or try to explain or sympathize with how they ended up in this position. It's more concerned with showing the many stumbling blocks, and obstacles in the way for someone who wishes to achieve their dream. Most people aren't born with opportunities, they are made, and worked for with blood, sweat, tears, and no guarantees.

It's an impressive debut for writer/director Craig Brewer. He tells the story with a confident, patient, and steady hand. He doesn't resort to music video tricks or slick camera angles which was probably tempting, considering the material. (The movie was distributed by MTV for God's sake.) What's also impressive was that he was able to coax solid dramatic performances from usual comedic hams Anthony Anderson and Dj Qualls, as the potential music producer and his musician.

The movie even takes a swipe at the genre it's playing in. The character of Skinny Black played by Ludacris is everything that the movie is fighting against. The image of the character is of a spoiled, tough talking, uneducated, so called rapper from the street, who's gotten lucky and now considers himself an artist. He also happens to be the character DJay's only door into the world he wants to inhabit. Even though he despises what the guy represents, he knows that he's one of the few way's in. As in life, the gatekeeper of this world is an idiot.

The breakout star of the movie is Terrence Howard. It's a good, solid performance. But although I enjoyed his portrayal, there does seem to be an awkward sense of performance. At times I felt he was trying to channel the spirit of Benecio Del Toro with mixed results. It's also not surprising that he had no first hand experience with rap music. Which he apparently had to learn on the set. Unfortunately......though understandably, he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the music form. Which may have been a character choice, but it's not clear.

But, on the other hand, I admire Brewer's desire to go with a classically trained actor instead of a rap artist turned actor. It gives the movie a feeling of legitimacy, and really pays off in the emotional scenes. and small intimate work with the other actors.

Overall, the movie also feels like the telling of a first act, instead of a complete story. As a result the ending feels a little rushed, and not as fulfilling as one would hope. At the same time the movie doesn't sell out, and thankfully the movie doesn't deliver an over the top Cinderella ending.

The movie is a surprise success. I found the movie enjoyable and fun. I'm sure less cynical people them me will even find the movie inspirational and crowd pleasing.

Check it out on Dvd January 10th.


Lons said...

Meh...I'm less impressed than you. While I understand that the point is you don't actually have to SYMPATHIZE with D. Jay in order to understand and appreciate his fight for glory, he's a pretty foul character to celebrate in any way, and the movie does try to get some pleasure out of his fuck-the-establishment, mysogynist attitude.

It is surprisingly well-made, however, and the performances are strong across-the-board (except for the unneccessary character of Anthony Anderson's wife, there only to play the shrill matron).

Anonymous said...

I really liked this movie. That scene where he puts the baby in the stroller on the porch along side his hooker mom...Damn. Reminded me a bit a you Ray, back in the day.