"Hustle & Flow" is being advertised as a tough urban drama full of macho posturing and grim, testosterone-fueled brio, but don't be fooled. After 10 minutes of this gritty portrait of Memphis street life, it's clear that the only thing writer-director Craig Brewer will sacrifice his realism for is romance.
Though unsparing in its portrayal of the lives of prostitutes, pimps, petty criminals and burnouts, "Hustle & Flow" is also a rapturous valentine to such enduring values as pluck, enterprise and loyalty. Its setting and aesthetic may be rooted in the harsh realism of the independent and blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s, but it possesses the gumption and spirit of the breeziest gotta-dance fable.
Such disparate sensibilities are difficult to reconcile, but Brewer does it with the ease of a master. He also shows us he is at home with his characters and their story. As "Hustle & Flow" opens, a pimp named DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard) is delivering what will become a familiar motivational speech to his top-earning prostitute, Nola (Taryn Manning). As the hardscrabble pair sit in DJay's dilapidated car in the middle of a steamy Memphis summer, DJay advances his argument -- that what defines a human being is his or her innate sense of worth and dignity -- in a surprisingly convincing monologue.
In the course of that brief, utterly transfixing soliloquy, Brewer accomplishes the next-to-impossible, which is making even the most mainstream viewers sympathize with an essentially amoral character and care deeply about what happens to him. And a lot will happen to him in the course of "Hustle & Flow," starting with the acquisition of a small electronic keyboard and ending with a desperate shot at success as a rapper. DJay begins to doodle with the keyboard at home, where he lives with Nola, a pregnant hooker named Shug (Taraji Henson) and a stripper named Lexus (Paula Jai Parker).
In time, he begins to develop some hooks, and after a chance encounter with an old schoolmate named Key (Anthony Anderson), DJay begins to harbor fantasies of making it big. What's more, a big opportunity is on its way, in the form of a Fourth of July visit to Memphis by a rap star named Skinny Black (Ludacris). If DJay and Key can record a demo tape to slip into Skinny's hands at just the right time, their lives could be changed forever.
Moviegoers may be familiar with Howard, most recently from fantastic dramatic turns in "Ray" and "Crash." The portly, jocular Anderson, of course, is well known as a reliable presence in comedies such as "Barbershop." As solid as their supporting work has been over the years, neither actor has gotten a chance to shine quite as brightly as they do in "Hustle & Flow," which features the kind of breakout lead performances that should catapult both actors into deserved stardom. Anderson, here playing a stolid, if slightly henpecked, family man who enters DJay's sordid world with a combination of fear and fascination, provides predictable laughs -- most often in the form of a simple, wordless take -- but also a benevolent presence in an atmosphere that, without the ballast of his character's rock-solid morality, wouldn't be nearly as appealing.
For his part, Howard simultaneously radiates a hypnotic blend of determination, danger and soul as the pimp with a heart of gold. With his flashing eyes and mumbling drawl, he often throws off the same kind of seductive heat as Benicio Del Toro. And he handles the movie's more lighthearted repartee with aplomb as well.
Humor, however hard-bitten, bubbles all the way through "Hustle & Flow," which quickly takes on a sense of giddy fun. As DJay and Key assemble their backup players -- who include the wide-eyed, reticent Shug, Nola (in charge of turning off the fan) and a white, pot-smoking musician from Key's church named Shelby (DJ Qualls) -- "Hustle & Flow" becomes not just a showcase for its two terrific lead actors but a consistently well-acted, lively ensemble production, wherein the entire ragtag band of players manages to win over the audience's affection.
The performances are accomplished, but the real star of "Hustle & Flow" is Brewer, a playwright who has written and directed a few other movies but who is effectively making a breathtaking national debut here. With his incisive ear and observant eye, he has completely captured the look, feel and sound of Memphis -- where he was reared -- from its leaky, threadbare strip joints to its long musical tradition, to which he pays homage in a soundtrack that honors Delta blues, Stax-era R&B, gospel and the city's signature rap style known as crunk.
As loving and intimate a portrait as Brewer has created of his home town, he has also made a movie that is about America, how it looks and feels and sounds, but also how its most treasured ideals transcend place and time. In fact, with its command of contemporary vernacular and its affectionate portrayal of a band of down-on-their-luck strivers, "Hustle & Flow" earns the right to wrap itself in the flag, which it ultimately does on that fateful July Fourth. In one of the film's most exhilarating sequences, DJay and his crew are recording an infectious, hard-driving ode to the streets called "Whoop That Trick." Watching as a pimp, a pothead and a pregnant hooker play and sing in a makeshift bedroom recording studio, and becoming increasingly caught up in their determination and hope, it's impossible not to think that this is a part of the American Dream, too.
Hustle & Flow (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence.