Hustle and Flow tells the story of a man who wishes to become a rap star, and sinks all his earnings into the effort until it almost breaks him. The rap music involved is fairly okay, maybe just a bit above average. The lyrics aren’t G-rated either. And yeah, I suppose I should mention that he is a pimp. In fact, the opening scene involves him giving a sort of pep-talk to one of his “girls” just before sending her off with a john. The talk involves, of all things, the nature of man, but the agenda is not in doubt. Quite a speech, that one:
See… 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. Even get a little pink hard-on the way they do. We territorial as shit, you know, we gonna protect our own. But man, he know about death. Got him a sense of history. Got religion. See… a dog, man, a dog don’t know shit about no birthdays or Christmas or Easter bunny, none of that shit. And one day God gonna come calling, so you know, they going through life carefree. But people like you and me, man, we always guessing. Wondering, “What if?” You know what I mean? So when you say to me, “Hey, I don’t think we should be doing this,” I gotta say, baby, I don’t think we should be doing this neither, but we ain’t gonna get no move on in this world, lying around in the sun, licking our ass all day. I mean, we man. I mean, you a woman and all, but we man. So with this said, you tell me what it is you wanna do with your life.
Despite all this, it turns out to be a wonderfully uplifting movie about how music can transform and humanize an individual whom we might find despicable. Much of this credit has to go to Terrence Howard, who delivers what is among the finest performances by an actor that I have ever seen.
Another important aspect involved in making us empathize with the pimp is the fact that it focuses on the music, on his struggle, and primarily on those scenes where you see his good side. That he is mostly a soft-spoken guy who speaks in a manner you don’t expect a pimp to speak helps.
This is not an alien strategy to us: the movie is set in a self-contained universe where the sense of right and wrong is defined relative to some basic assumptions. The Godfather did this wonderfully, as you might remember. Besides, since you see him pretty much every moment in the movie, the empathy is sort of inevitable (vide The Day of the Jackal).
Were the movie content with this strategy, it would merely have been good. What makes it better is a wrenching scene where it shatters the facade. In a late scene where Djay (the pimp) tries to convince his girl Nola (played wonderfully by Taryn Manning) to turn a couple of tricks so he could buy some higher quality audio equipment, she finally cracks:
Nola: Do you know what I do in the back of them cars? Do you?
Djay: Everybody’s got something to do!
Nola: Everybody’s got something important going on in their life but me, D! And I want something!
Djay: What do you want?
Nola: I don’t really know, but I want some…
Djay: What do you want?
Nola: I don’t know.
Djay: Tell me what the fuck you wanna do!
Nola: Not this, D!
Djay (changing tactics, we’ve seen this before and it usually works): You know what, man? I just got you dressed all wrong. You know, bitch like you, man, you need to have on one of them suits. Get you a mobile phone and shit. Get an ear jack. Man, you gonna feel different. I’m gonna put you in some new shoes tomorrow, man. And you gonna feel like you are in charge.
Nola: D! I know when you’re messing with my head. Because I let you. Because sometimes my head needs to be messed with. But right now, just don’t. Okay?
It is when Nola says those words that, somehow, the horror of what he’s been doing to produce his rap album finally hits home. His eventual success still brings a cheer, but this moment lingers in the memory.