On the sweltering streets of Memphis, a 40ish pimp named DJay scavenges out an existence that's long on desperation and short on purpose. He shares a home with three prostitutes under his "management" and sells drugs on the side to get by. The complex tangle of their domestic and working relationships is anything but glamorous. Survival is the name of DJay's game.
But an unlikely series of events awakens a new hope in DJay: trading his hardscrabble life as a hustler for hip-hop glory. A persistent customer talks DJay into trading a bag of pot for an ancient Casio keyboard. Then DJay discovers a junior high acquaintance has made the leap from inner-city hopelessness to platinum accolades as a rapper known as Skinny Black—and he's going to be paying a visit to a local bar for old time's sake.
With the help of his friend, Key (who barely scrapes by recording B-level gospel artists), his "girls," Shug and Nola, and a gangly church musician named Shelby, DJay's beats begin to flow. His future rides on whether his smooth-talking ways can win an audience with Skinny Black when the rapper revisits his humble beginnings.
Hustle & Flow is long on urban grit, which makes it painful going at times. But ultimately, it's a story of a man's determination to pursue his dreams. In this sense, it resembles the myriad of Rocky-esque underdog movies that come before it. There's a lot not to like about DJay's treatment of those around him, but at least he's willing to take a risk when he sees a chance for something different.
DJay's relationship with the three women he pimps is very complex. It goes without saying that he lives off their labors. At certain moments, however, he treats them as human beings rather than money-making sex machines to be exploited. He gives Shug a chance to sing the chorus of one of his songs; he tries, in his own broken way, to encourage Nola's own desires to find purpose and meaning in life (though even the best of these attempts still are self-serving to a degree).
After DJay orders Nola to have sex with a music shop owner in exchange for a microphone, she confronts him in tears for having used her. We see that even though she hasn't said much, Nola longs for a better, more meaningful life as well.
DJay and Nola attend one of Key's recording sessions with a gospel artist who plainly sings about Jesus. DJay is deeply moved by her performance, and a lone tear streams down his face as she sings about salvation.
Key's wife, Yevette, is a faithful Christian who prays before meals twice in the film, ending each prayer with "In Jesus' name."
Prostitution is one of the main themes of Hustle & Flow. For the most part, the film merely suggests what's happening without actually showing the girls on the job. Several times DJay and Nola wait for johns in his car. After the men have a look at her, she simply leaves with them and returns later. In the last such scene, we see Nola's silhouette from a distance climbing on top of her customer in the backseat of his car (no nudity). Later, the camera briefly shows her breasts as she shimmies into a revealing top. DJay tells one potential patron what certain things cost.
Nola, Shug and another prostitute named Lexus wear skimpy, revealing clothes for the entire film. Nola sucks on a popsicle suggestively. A long scene in a strip club shows a number of women pole dancing in g-strings and skimpy tops. Another similarly clothed woman performs a lap dance for a customer. The scene then moves into the locker room of the strip club, which is full of g-string wearing strippers. The bare, topless backs of several are visible.
DJay suggests that Key's wife is upset with him because she's not getting enough sex, that she simply needs to have certain sexual acts (described graphically), and she'll be fine. (That conversation ends up in a scuffle between the men.)
In a confrontation between DJay and one of his "girls," he grabs her around the neck. [Spoiler Warning] DJay is trying to help a passed-out Skinny Black in the men's room when he discovers that the rapper has thrown his demo tape in the toilet. DJay fishes the tape out of the toilet, stuffs it into Black's moth, then brutally hits the mostly incapacitated musician five or six times, bloodying his fist and Black's face in the process. When a member of Skinny Black's entourage stumbles into the restroom and sees what's happened, he pulls a gun on DJay—who promptly shoots the man in the shoulder with Black's gun. DJay then runs from the bar, shooting wildly (and missing everyone else) as he goes. The police, with guns in hand, are waiting for DJay when he gets home.
Drug and Alcohol Content
There's hardly in a scene in the movie where someone isn't smoking, drinking, doing drugs or selling them. The opening scene begins with DJay taking a drag on a cigarette and exhaling, which sets the stage for the entire film. DJay goes on to smoke in many scenes, as do other characters. In bars, characters drink hard liquor and beer.
Most disturbing, however, are the perhaps half-dozen scenes that show people smoking marijuana. DJay delivers bags of weed to customers at least half-a-dozen times. Another customer asks him for crank. Nola snorts cocaine in the car before leaving with a customer.
One of DJay's friends, a bar owner named Arnel, tells him that Skinny Black got low-quality marijuana during his last visit to Memphis, and that he wants better stuff this time. So DJay procures higher quality dope for the rapper and uses it to impress him. He and Skinny Black get very drunk and stoned. Skinny Black later passes out in the bar bathroom.
Other Negative Elements
As Key gets more and more involved helping DJay, he begins to make his friendship with DJay a higher priority than his relationship with his wife, putting tremendous strain on his marriage. At one point he simply hangs up on Yevette when a stressful telephone call degenerates into an argument.
In one of the most painful scenes in the movie, DJay evicts Lexus and her infant son, kicking them out of the house and onto the street, tossing two dresser drawers full of her clothing after them.
DJay shoves a bundle of cash down his pants, rubs it around and says that it has his "sweet juices" on it before giving it to a grumpy dealer as payment for drugs.
The content of DJay's songs is very similar to contemporary hip-hop—full of profanity, anger and other problematic content. One of his song's titles has to be changed so that it's more radio friendly. It begins as "Beat That B--ch," morphs to "Stomp That Ho," and finally gets recorded as "Whoop That Trick."
Hustle & Flow pulls no punches as it tells a gritty tale of redemption involving complex characters trying to make the most of their impoverished lives.
DJay is a hard character to like. You don't want to root for someone whose influence on those around him is so destructive. Yet the film succeeds in portraying DJay as something more than "just" a pimp and a drug dealer. In the way his relationship with Nola unfolds, we see that he really does want to help her on some level—even as he continues to profit from her prostitution. The intricacy of the plot comes from the fact that DJay sometimes relates to her (and others) as a pimp or pusher. Other times, he connects with them as a human being chasing a dream, and drawing those closest to him into that dream's power.
Much of the content in the film—especially the extreme profanity and the drug use—made me wince. But I was surprised by the arguably restrained way the movie dealt with prostitution. Though there's no shortage of sexual content, it didn't glamorize the world's oldest profession in the way that scores of Hollywood films in the past have done (remember Pretty Woman?). The poverty and powerlessness of the three prostitutes in Hustle & Flow is palpable. The movie manages to tell a story in this context without communicating that such a lifestyle is good or acceptable. It's clear that prostitution has taken a terrible toll on these women.
Movie audiences will probably never grow tired of underdog stories. And the best of those stories inspire us to take (positive) risks, to dream, to pursue what we were made for. Unfortunately, that possibility is completely buried under an avalanche of R-rated content in Hustle & Flow.