I haven't seen Walk the Line or Capote, so I don't know how good Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were in their roles, but the three Best Actor Oscar nominated performances (from last year) I have seen are all phenomenal - Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), and Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow). Out of those three, if I had to pick a winner, it'd have to be Howard. He simply owns this film.
Hustle and Flow tells the story of Djay (Howard), a Memphis pimp who fears that his life will never amount to anything more. Inspired by the success of local boy turned rap star Skinny Black, Djay sets out to become a successful rapper. He has a lot to say and he has the skills required; all he needs is the opportunity to let his voice be heard. He enlists the help of an old school friend, Key, and his associate Shelby; they have the skills necessary to record music.
Djay's whores (well, what else can I call em?), Nola and Shug, help him finance his endeavour and also provide support in their own ways, although the film makes it clear that Djay's line of work is essentially to exploit these women. Working from a 'studio' room set up in Djay's house, they set about recording tracks with the intention of getting them played on the radio by passing the recordings on to Skinny Black (the aforementioned successful rapper). In pursuing his dream, Djay indirectly inspires those around him as they share in it.
Taken at face value, Hustle & Flow is your typical 'protagonist overcomes obstacles to achieve his dream' story. And in many ways, it is just that. There are no real surprises here in terms of narrative (except perhaps the shootout that occurs at one point). Where Hustle & Flow excels, though, is in its execution. There are several things that raise this film well above its peers:
- Terence Howard - I said he was phenomenal in this, and he is. Seriously. Despite playing a fundamentally unlikable character, he manages to be human and relatable, and it's very easy to root for him. Djay is charismatic and driven, and Howard sells the character completely - including the rap scenes.
- Setting & Atmosphere - To say that this film is gritty and grungy is an understatement. The heroes of films like this usually come from poor neighborhoods, but rarely does it feel as genuine as this. It's a unique setting. It's also a unique set of characters - it's daring to tell a story like this when the protagonist is a pimp and some of the main characters are prostitutes!
- Strong writing - Despite embracing a few cliches, the writing manages to make the situations honest. The supporting characters feel like real people, and not plot devices used to drive the story forward. They have their own lives, even those characters who are ostensibly comic relief. A lot of the credit should also go to the actors, who are uniformly excellent.
- Verisimilitude - I guess this point is sort of the end result of the above - the film feels real, and doesn't have any element of Hollywood phoniness.
- Music - Last but not least, the music is terrific. I don't think anyone has made a film like this centering on rap music, and it was fascinating to watch the process these guys follow putting tracks together.