Adding another contributor to the ranks of Ten Years Ago, please welcome Vanadium Silver, Man of Science by day and Man of Opinion by night, with a throwback to 2005’s Hustle & Flow.
In 2005, I was a junior in college, dreaming big about my future as the academic professor I would not end up being. It was the tail end of the Kazaa boom, the early stages iTunes, and the year Kanye West let us know how George W. Bush felt about black people.
That summer, Hustle & Flow arrived.
Hustle & Flow stars Terrence Howard (who was nominated for an Academy Award for this role), as DJay, a pimp living through a mid-life crisis in the poverty stricken sections of Memphis. The movie follows his life, rediscovery of himself, and the delusions that he creates.
DJay’s employees include Nola, admirably played by Taryn Manning well before she would grace our Netflix accounts as Pennsatucky; Shug, pregnant and optimistically played by Taraji P. Henson; and Lexus, the hothead, played by Paula Jai Parker. Initially we are introduced to the life that DJay and his workers have developed, one of drug deals, prostitution, and poverty. DJay, however, is not a stereotype of a pimp as normally depicted by Hollywood. It is clear that the chosen roles in this household were done out of necessity, not that of the thrill or flare.
The crux of the movie follows DJay’s hope to develop a career as a rapper, with the assistance of Key (Anthony Anderson) and Shelby (DJ Qualls, in a standard DJ Qualls role, that of Awkward, Pre-Cera and Eisenberg White Guy). The goal is to put out an album by July 4th so that DJay can hook up with his “old friend,” Skinny Black (played by, unfortunately, Ludacris). But because DJay has distorted his relationship with Black and deluded himself that it would be easy, his plan for fame falls apart.
My first query upon re-watching this movie was how well Howard’s acting would appear in lieu of where his career has gone (the Cuba Gooding, Jr. path). His performance, however, is as stand-out as I remember it. His DJay is not a complex person. He has simple goals but a deluded sense of how the music industry works. He is quick to anger, and makes decisions that he will not go back on.
What stood out to me this time more than anything was Howard’s accent. This may sound minor, but his accent is so key to his depiction of the pimp. It localizes the character and truly stands out next to the actors barely even trying to attempt one. (I’m looking at you Anderson, Qualls, and Ludacris.)
Howard’s role shows the potential that he really had at this point, the next big thing he could have been. 2005 was a giant year for him. He was in this as well as Crash and on his way to filming Iron Man, the movie that would signify the change in his career trajectory. Hopefully that path has begun to fix itself with the success of Empire, but I was transfixed upon him again as the movie rolled on.
The first real conflict of the movie is when Lexus is removed from the house due to her disagreements with DJay. I hadn’t realized back then but it really surprised me that the movie seems to just forget about her. There is a brief glance of her at the end of the movie but that’s about it. Her last statement is really “Where will I go?” and we never truly get to figure out much of where.
This was surprising because the movie truly aims to put a spotlight on the humanity and lives of the other members of the home, Nola especially. Nola becomes the face of the sex worker, her journey and combative relationship with DJay highlight the struggle that poverty has placed them into.
My next revelation was how much the poverty stuck out to me more than it did 10 years ago. DJay and his family are an excellent depiction of the struggles of American poor. They fight and scrape for every dollar, and hang their dreams on a chance to get out. The only chance they really have is through DJay’s music.
And the music….still works. The rap is smooth, the beats are effective, and the lyrics still work. This movie hinges, more than anything, on the music being effective, and it still sparkles because of it. You will still smile at “Whoop That Trick” or cry as you see the realization of their team’s potential on “Hard Out Here For a Pimp.”
I generally dislike musicals and my rewatch made me realize that this movie expertly tricked me into watching one. I groaned at my realization and cursed about it to everyone in the room that would listen, which ended up just being my cat.
But DJay’s dreams of a music career and the way he pursues it puts this movie strictly into a time capsule. To this day, I still think he could have put his music over the net. Anderson and Qualls’ characters are not mired into the same situation as Howard’s, and 2005 was a peak of file sharing. DJay’s miracle throw to convince Ludacris to get him a deal seems stuck in the ’90s, not the new century. Beyond Ludacris, their plan is to get their song on the radio.
The radio?? Really?? Why? Put it out there and see what happens. Get on some podcasts, get it on the net get it out there. These questions bugged me all along. But does it ruin the experience? Absolutely not.
At its core, though, this is a movie about music and the dream out of poverty. Each character (minus Lexus) is fleshed out, with their own goals and need for their plan to succeed. They are each looking for a new beginning, a way out of their current lives, a way to move forward. The movie holds up well because it is taking a simple story with a simple goal and telling it well. Ten years later I can truly see that the conflict in the end is all the same one, the staleness of American life.
Most of all this is a movie that recognizes that cell phones actually exist! There’s a scene where a character is interrupted by a phone call. And in 2005 this was a hugely important revelation! Cell phones still didn’t exist in Hollywood as best as I can remember.
If you missed Hustle & Flow, spend the three bucks on Amazon and rent it. Just be careful humming “Whoop That Trick” in public.