Writer-director Craig Brewer's remarkable "Hustle & Flow" is a movie with heat, and not just the figurative kind. This rags-to-possible-riches story -- its ending is both satisfying and ambiguous -- about a hustler who chases down his dream of becoming a hip-hop star, takes place in Memphis, Tenn., a Memphis of summer dresses clinging to sticky skin, and of cars that seem to move far slower than usual, like tired animals conserving their energy in the midst of a heat wave. In this Memphis, convenience stores are desert oases of mythical proportion: A popsicle will cost you, but the air conditioning is free, and no matter how little money you've got, that momentary blast of coolness can make you feel like royalty.
"Hustle & Flow" suspends you in its spell of mood, of feeling, of climate. It's a pop picture that finds its richness in peeling down to the essentials of good storytelling. In a world of movies that try far too hard to move, entertain and dazzle us, the artistry of "Hustle & Flow" lies in the way it waits for us to come to it. We can walk as slowly as we want, but sooner or later, it's going to get us.
Terrence Howard (who gave a subtly layered performance in Paul Haggis' droningly didactic "Crash") plays DJay, a small-time drug dealer and pimp who presides over a household of women that includes tough-cookie prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) and sweet-natured Shug (the marvelous Taraji P. Henson), who's taking a break from working because she's heavily pregnant. DJay makes money any way he can: As a character, he's attuned to his own survival, not our approval, and while we're immediately intrigued by him, we don't automatically like him. At one point early in the movie he throws one of his hookers (played by Paula Jai Parker) out of the house because she has become a squalling nuisance. But he also throws out the woman's infant son, to whom Shug has become deeply attached, along with her: He picks up the baby in his little walker and plops him on the doorstep with his weeping, cussing mother. It's a moment that tears you in two -- even the tough-as-nails Nola runs away from the scene, unable to bear it -- and while the sequence throws the movie momentarily off-balance, it serves an important purpose: DJay isn't the kind of protagonist we can cuddle up to.
As much as we want to believe he's a good guy at heart, Brewer isn't going to make things cushy for us by rushing our sympathy for him. The movie demands that we accept DJay on purely human terms -- in other words, that we acknowledge the ugliness of his flaws before we're allowed a glimpse of his latent decency. In a later scene, he pimps out Nola against her will in a way that strips her of her dignity, and she turns on him with a jagged directness that's heart-rending. (Manning, with her hard-looking eyeliner and coolly appraising stare, resembles the original 1959 Barbie, but unlike Barbie, her Nola has soul.) DJay may be a charming underdog, but he's also a growly, unpredictable one; as charismatic and achingly, painfully human as he is, he never fully earns our trust.
But our conflicted feelings about DJay -- drawn out by Howard's supple, jaguar-cool performance -- are a reflection of this deceptively straightforward movie's complexity and power. And even when we're not sure we like DJay that much, we always believe in him: "Hustle & Flow" is an old-fashioned story of redemption, and it delivers on every promise of uplift and euphoria the genre demands. DJay gets ahold of an ancient, plinky Casio and decides that if an old semiacquaintance of his by the name of Skinny Black (played with shimmery slyness by Ludacris) can become a rap star, so can he. By chance, he reconnects with an old pal, Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer who makes a meager living committing gospel choir recordings (as well as court depositions) to tape. And along with Shelby (DJ Qualls), a square-looking church musician whose hipness far transcends his scrawny whiteness, they sit down in DJay's modest, jerry-built home studio to make a hit.
"Make" is the operative word here, because in addition to being a story of redemption, "Hustle & Flow" is also about the deep pleasures (and the mystery) of making music out of nothing, of telling a story that amounts to something much greater than the specific lyrics sung or notes played. Against the half-reassuring, half-uncertain-as-hell chug of Shelby's beat machine, with Key at the soundboard and Shug stepping in, on a whim, to sing backup, DJay reads off the words he has written on a small pad, learning as he goes which beats to stress and which ones he should let ride.
The song doesn't sound so great at first, but before long it starts to grow with the same assured mightiness of Jack's beanstalk, sprouting fat branches and leafy digressions -- it stops sounding like an amateurish, homegrown track and turns into something essential and alive. When sweet, insecure Shug hears the glory of her voice on the playback, her face registers such joy and astonishment that you can't help laughing with her, caught up in the pure rush of her exhilaration. (Henson's performance here is both quiveringly delicate and potent; it's one of the movie's key compass points.)
The music opens something up in DJay, too. His cocky desperation begins to smooth down into something resembling relaxed confidence. The song (its lyrics are an un-self-pitying, critical lament about the rough life of a pimp) isn't just an accessory or prop in the movie; it becomes its nerve center and its racing heart, a driving force in the narrative.
"Hustle & Flow" is Brewer's second feature (his first was "The Poor & Hungry," a small indie that played the festival circuit and the Independent Film Channel), and although it's a renegade, heartfelt picture made on a smallish budget, it's also an inspiring example of how far good instincts and intelligence can take a filmmaker. Brewer has a knack for finding the small details that open up the secrets of even a minor character. (There's a wonderful sequence in which Key's wife, Yevette, played by Elise Neal, makes a lonely supper for herself, since Key has become consumed with working on DJay's record. Frustrated and depressed, she shows up at DJay's house, even though it's on the "other" side of town and inhabited by disreputable women; we think she's going to berate her husband, but instead, she has brought sandwiches for everybody -- she opens herself to this small ragtag community, and they're happy to welcome her.)
Brewer grew up in Memphis, and he lives there now: His love for this vivid, confounding city -- including the parts of it that are far from pretty -- informs every frame of the picture. He shows us cars beat up and patched up to within an inch of their lives, groups of smallish houses lined up in tight rows, and streets so dismal they make the Boulevard of Broken Dreams look like Candyland. Yet there's nothing depressing about the look of "Hustle & Flow" -- Brewer understands that what's most vital about Memphis can't be found in its more conventionally attractive tourist haunts. This is a city where blues and R&B, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop (the songs in the movie are by local Memphis artists Three 6 Mafia and Al Kapone), have thrived so vigorously it's almost mystical. You can't believe in pop music if you don't believe in Memphis.
And whether it was purely intentional or just a stroke of luck, Brewer found a lead actor with one of the greatest voices in the movies today. I once had an art teacher who, as a way of getting us kids to capture the essence of an object instead of just making a visual approximation of it, explained that not every line we drew had to be one continuous flow; if we were to occasionally lift the pencil from the paper, in just the right place, the eye would automatically leap the gap. "The eye loves it," she explained. "It loves connecting that line." In "Hustle & Flow" Howard's speaking voice is like that broken line: It has an opaque, husky, graphite richness, but now and then bits of it fall away, leaving just a rasp of a whisper.
Howard has all the Memphis locutions down cold, but almost any talented actor could do that with just a few weeks of study: We're not just talking about Meryl Streep learning an accent, but about a character owning a voice. I found myself leaning closer to the screen to listen to Howard; I instinctively wanted to be closer to that sound. The eye loves "Hustle & Flow," and the ear does too. This is heat you can see and hear.