Hustle & Flow (R) *** 1/2

Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning
Directed by Craig Brewer
7 p.m., Friday, June 10

Brewer walks a fine line in his writing and directing debut, following a Memphis pimp named DJay (Howard) who has ambitions of becoming a rapper. Hustle & Flow will probably endure endless comparisons to another rise-of-a-rapper film, 8 Mile, but in both its nuances and structure, Brewer's is the better film. It's not easy to make DJay both a believable street hustler and a sympathetic character we want to root for; although at times Brewer veers too far in either direction, for the most part he delivers a balanced portrait, aided greatly by Howard's charismatic performance.

DJay is adrift in life, pimping out white girl Nola (Manning) and loud-mouthed stripper Lex (Paula Jai Parker), until he discovers that famous hometown rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) is coming back to town. Energized by an encounter with former classmate Key (Anderson), who has become a respectable middle-class guy and owns his own recording equipment, DJay sets out on a quest to make his own music and put it in the hands of Skinny Black when he comes back for a party.

Although the rags-to-riches story is at times as predictable as 8 Mile, it boasts a much more authentic vibe than the Eminem flick. Brewer doesn't shy away from the some of the more unsavory aspects of the pimp life -- DJay often treats his hos with disdain, although he never gets violent with them, and Lex is taking care of an illegitimate child, while former streetwalker Shug (Taraji P. Henson) is laid up pregnant with her own.

At the same time, DJay is a kinder, gentler pimp, eventually doing the right thing in most instances, which makes us all the more inclined to root for his success. Howard, who had memorable supporting turns in Crash and Ray, is mesmerizing as DJay, and makes even his less-than-admirable moments seem forgivable. It helps, too, that the music DJay and his collaborators create is genuinely catchy and good. Far too many movies about "great" musicians have them playing second-rate music.

As magnetic as Howard is, it's Henson in her small part as a timid, scared woman afforded a chance to sing back-up on DJay's demo who steals the show. She gives one of the best supporting performances of the year, effortlessly selling Shug's terror at carrying a baby whose father she doesn't even know and her joy at hearing her own voice on record. Hustle & Flow ends with a little too much overwrought tension, and it borders on hokey at times, but in all those little moments, it's a perfect groove.
Josh Bell


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