“Nothin’ but a bunch of jive and junk,” is how a “gateway hustler” named DJay (Terrence Howard) sizes up FM radio in Memphis as he drives through the city with Nola (Taryn Manning), a wide-eyed white girl employed as his top moneymaker. Selling an ounce of weed to bar owner Arnel (Isaac Hayes), DJay learns some big company is expected over the Fourth of July weekend: “Skinny Black,” a rapper DJay remembers “when he was hustling his underground tapes down at the drive-in out the back of his Cutlass.” Skinny is now a platinum selling recording artist.
Struggling with the other women in his house – the pregnant Shug (Taraji Henson) and the bitter Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) – DJay finds solace with a used synthesizer. He runs into a schoolmate named Key (Anthony Anderson) who works as a recording engineer. Now the age his father was when he died, DJay feels like his end may be coming soon. He articulates his “mode” through lyric, interrupting dinner between Key and his middle class wife (Elise Neal) to demonstrate his rhyme. Impressed, Key brings in a piano player from his church, a geeky looking white boy named Shelby (D.J. Qualls) and sets up a recording studio in DJay’s house.
Working to find a hook in the pages of lyric DJay scribbled, Shelby brings Shug into the studio and has her lay down a chorus to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”. Nola gets upset that her role in the enterprise seems limited to exchanging her body to a pawnshop owner for an expensive mic. DJay reminds her that without her work as their “primary investor,” none of them would be anywhere. Equipped with a demo tape, DJay makes his way to Arnel’s Fourth of July party, determined to get his big break by getting the tape to Skinny Black (Ludacris) by the end of the night.
Craig Brewer grew up in Memphis and spent his school days writing and directing plays. After studying at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he moved home to Tennessee. The sudden death of his father at the age of 49 had Brewer thinking of his own mortality by the age of 27. Using a $20,000 inheritance from his father’s passing, Brewer shot his first feature – a tale of a Memphis car thief who falls in love with one of his victims, titled The Poor & Hungry – on digital video. The film made the festival circuit and was later sold to the Independent Film Channel.
Out scouting locations in Memphis, Brewer was approached by a hustler trying to sell him a woman. The pimp would not take no for an answer. “So I just put the two together. I thought, ‘Man, if that guy had the same mid-life crisis that I had, and suddenly he started thinking about making something creative, what kind of story would that be?’ It seemed to me that his creative outlet would be music. In Memphis, that means hip-hop, crunk.” In 2000, Brewer finished a screenplay for Hustle & Flow and found a champion in producer Stephanie Allain, who had brought John Singleton and Boyz N The Hood to Columbia Pictures in 1990.
Allain spent three years trying to set up Hustle & Flow. No one was buying, but she refused to take no for an answer either. “Stephanie said, ‘When you made your first feature, The Poor & Hungry, you made a really good movie for 20 grand. Let’s see what $400,000 can do.’” Hoping he’d help finance the film, Allain sent the script to Singleton. He loved it. “I called [Brewer] up and I said that he’d done what they’d always told me at USC Film School: the cheapest way to make a film is to write a film. And reading the script to Hustle & Flow, the story leapt off the page, and it deserved to be a picture.”
Singleton – coming off the biggest box office hit of his career with 2 Fast 2 Furious – felt they’d have no problem raising far more than $400,000. He shopped the project around, but got the same answer Allain had been given. “They said they really loved the script, they loved the material, that they had hesitations on casting Terrence Howard because he wasn’t a known actor, he wasn’t someone who could bring in an audience, they thought. One studio had issues with Craig being white.”
Brewer recalled, “A lot of studios did not want Terrence because they thought this was a perfect role for a rapper to play. But I was like, ‘You know, that’s really not what the movie is about. The movie is really about the people in shadows, the people who feel like they’re on the other side of the globe.’” Brewer wanted the movie to be more like The Commitments, “There’s something about nobodies trying to be somebodies that America has always embraced.” After a year of rejection, Singleton decided to greenlight the movie himself, using his house as collateral to put up a $2.8 million budget.
To make sure Howard would be convincing as a rapper, Singleton took him to Memphis to work with DJ Paul and Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia, the group composing the film’s songs. Howard laid down vocals for “Pop It For Some Paper” and put any doubts he could rap to rest. Shooting commenced in July 2004 in Memphis. Brewer had rejected suggestions he make the movie someplace cheaper, wanting to tie in the musical legacy established at Sun Records and Stax in the 1960s with what local rappers were creating out of makeshift studios in the present.
Shot in 23 days, Hustle & Flow became the story of the Sundance Film Festival when screened in January, winning the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature and selling distribution rights to Paramount Classics for $9 million. Released in July 2005, the film drew generally favorable reviews, though critics in The New York Times and The Village Voice were among those who disapproved of the film’s depiction of women. Audiences only bought $20 million of tickets in the U.S., but Howard received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, while Three 6 Mafia became the first rap group to win Best Original Song with “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”.
Hustle & Flow works on all sorts of different levels: as a down and dirty B-movie in the Blaxploitation mode, as a rich character study firmly grounded in reality, as a musical drama about nobodies striving to become somebody. But where it succeeds most eloquently is as a love poem to the power of creativity. In twenty years of movies about rap music starting with Krush Groove, this is the first one that actually takes the time to depict how rap’s sound is created. Instead of stretch limos or champagne or fame, this is a movie fascinated with artists.
Brewer’s script not only mines Memphis and its street culture for production value, but features characters we haven’t seen before. The casting is A+, with Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taraji Henson and Taryn Manning coming out of nowhere and giving career making performances. The story itself may not be the newest thing under the sun, but the style Brewer tells this with is. Director of photography Amy Vincent provided the gritty lighting, while the crunk soundtrack is filled with great old school blues and soul, including Buddy Guy, Al Green, Luther Ingram and Willie Hutch.
Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies writes, “Hustle & Flow is a perfect example of the manipulative power of a tale well told. I found myself cheering DJay (Terrence Howard) on in his quest to make it big, despite his misogyny and his dubious self-control and his overpowering self-pity … The film works as a showcase for a powerful, sly performance by Howard, a performance that will probably bring him an Oscar nomination, but too often it’s overpowered by the heady scent of its own hokum.”
“Hustle & Flow has some dark undertones, but they are always overshadowed by the sheer joy of the film’s execution. The musical segments in which they create a demo tape are joyous and enlightening, capable of converting the most straight-laced moviegoers into lyrical rappers … Unless your popcorn is laced with sedatives, you will find yourself dancing to the beat and singing ‘Whoop that trick’ with the rest of them. If only all summer movies could ignite this same level of enthusiasm,” writes Lexi Feinberg at Cinema Blend.
Sara Fetters at Movie Freak writes, “I know almost nothing about rap and I’m not going to try and be more knowledgeable than I really am … So what? What I do know is a good movie when I see one, and Hustle & Flow is a very good movie … Like Scorsese scouring the streets of New York, Brewer is so confident, so at ease amidst the crazily calm and lackadaisical whimsy of Memphis’ seedier pathways I almost felt like I was there. What he does is remarkable, showing all the showmanship and bravado behind the camera of a director with far more under his belt.”