Like 8 Mile for adults, Hustle & Flow follows the traditional Hollywood rags-to-riches tale but throws in unexpected grit and top-class drama. DJay (Terrence Howard) is a small-time pimp scratching a living in Memphis, but he really wants to be a rapper. Spurred by the news that a successful hip hop artist is coming back to town, DJay enlists his old friend Key (Anthony Anderson) to help him lay down a demo tape.
In story terms, this is as familiar as they come, but Hustle & Flow scores highly in its unblinking view of poverty, and in the disturbing contradictions embodied by its leading man. DJay is complex and deeply flawed character who is hard to love, and it is a tribute to Howard's subtle, committed performance that we eventually want him to succeed.
For starters, there is that day job. Pimping is a dirty business, and while DJay is not violent, the film never shies from the fact that he is exploiting his charges. Writer/director Craig Brewer's script delves fearlessly into the foundations of an emotional relationship based on profit.
The women, in truth, don't get much of a look in, but while there are real-life gangster rappers who proclaim their pimping origins as a point of pride, Hustle & Flow is too smart to resort to bling clichés. The central scenes in DJay's improvised studio are thrilling - even if the resulting sound is a little too good to be true - and DJ Qualls is terrific as DJay's lanky, white sound man.