Starring: Terrence Dashon Howard,Anthony Anderson, DJ Qualls, Taryn Manning Taraji P. Henson, Ludacris, Isaac Hayes and Paula Jai Parker
Director: Craig Brewer
Writing Credits: Craig Brewer
Distributor: Paramount Classics (USA 2005)
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated: R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence

The timeworn tale of an artist's instoppable drive has been told thousands of times, from Fame to Amadeus and everything in between. What makes HUSTLE AND FLOW different, however, is not its medium (crunk and hip-hop as the creative highway from rags to riches) but its determined refusal to deify the artist. Craig Brewer's Sundance-winning drama, a bracing and taut chamber piece, unflinching follows a drug-dealing pimp on his search for creative expression and rap-star glory. If Amadeus gave us a wild, irresponsibly decadent Mozart, HUSTLE AND FLOW gives us the hardended and rough mirror image -- a violent, sexist, brutal lost soul, buried in the poverty of the South, desperate to use his art as a way out.

It is to Brewer's credit, and to the credit of his blazingly talented leading man Terrence Dashon Howard (Crash), that the pimp of HUSTLE AND FLOW, DJay, never pulls his punches...even those of the physical variety. Nor does the film settle for making DJay a mere anti-hero. The complexities of this life, frought as they are with economic and racial struggles, are far too rooted below the surface of things. DJay both loves and is sick of his whores, including the "country-dumb" Nola (Tayryn Manning), fiery Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and the pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson). The five of them (Lexus has a baby son) live hand-to-mouth on the outskirts of Memphis, where the neighborhood's one claim to fame is the rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), who made it to the big time and left Tennessee far behind. DJay, possessed by dreams of making his own music, enlists high-school buddy Key (Anthony Anderson) to create a demo, which he hopes will be heard by Skinny Black during the rapper's hometown 4th of July party.

By far, the most exciting sequences of HUSTLE AND FLOW are those in the makeshift studio, where DJay, Key, tech nerd Shelby (DJ Qualls), and the women slowly form ideas into words into sounds into music. The score, featuring a veritable who's who of crunk artists -- many from the Memphis area -- is remarkable not only for its musical acumen but for its uncanny encapsulation of DJay's experience. When he bursts through with the pounding rhythms of "Whoop That Trick", or when Shug bursts forth with unrecognized vocal chops on "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp", a tingle goes up your spine. It is an elemental tale, perhaps even a timeless one -- self-expression being realized -- but it is told in a thrillingly fresh new way.

One can only hope that the anchor and heart of the film, Howard's finely textured performance, attracts the attention of awards voters. After toiling in Hollywood's trenches for a decade, Howard has given the performance of his already-impressive career. Taraji P. Henson -- who first attracted attention in John Singleton's Baby Boy -- proves to be one of America's most underrated female performers; as the dimwitted but warm Shug, whose blunt and unabashed emotions fuel the film from its earliest moments, Henson shows us the gossamer tenderness of African-American a culture that often sees such tenderness as a weakness.

By turns meditative and fierce, quiet and pounding, HUSTLE AND FLOW runs the board in a way that few films even attempt. Its title suggests two opposing forces that find a symbiotic peace; like its characters, it dreams of flowing in one world while still hustling to get there. It is a powerful, thought-provoking, and ultimately redemptive ride...a raw experience that deserves its place in the sun.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2005 Gabriel Shanks and Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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