By Sheerly Avni
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Several critics, most recently The New York Times’ Kelefa Sanneh, have already tried to grapple with the troublesome questions at the heart of the new indie hit “Hustle and Flow,” the story of a small time Memphis pimp with big time hip-hop dreams. Sanneh calls it a “Hip-Hop conundrum”: How can a pimp be a hero? he asks. Can you make him sympathetic and still keep him real, especially according to the hip-hop ethos, which has transformed the word pimp from a job description to an all-purpose catch phrase for living out the American dream?
Sanneh gives the movie kudos for trying: “Instead of ducking hip hop’s most unsavory elements,” he writes, “the film puts them front and center.” He’s right: We see DJay (played with wonderful subtlety and heat by Terrence Howard) trying to manage his women, deal drugs and manipulate everyone around him to get what he wants. We also watch and sympathize as he struggles to rise above the squalor of his life. Rapping is not just a meal ticket for DJay, but a chance to express everything he has inside, the beating of his own tortured heart. As another musician tells him, between tokes, hip hop is really the blues: “it’s all about py, pain, and music by any means necessary.”
It’s a problem central to both the movie and to hip hop culture itself: as a woman, the most you can hope for is that your py makes it into someone’s song. Sanneh acknowledges, in passing, that the movie’s liberation message only holds for men, but he ignores the fact that in the film, liberation takes place literally on the backs of DJay’s women. Pimping is, after all, not a metaphor but a profession: The pimp sings the song, the ho’s do the work.
DJay is no mack he only has three girls working for him. There’s Shug, slow, stupid and too pregnant to bring in any money. For the first half of the movie, she just gazes at him with worried, loving, loyal eyes, a cocker spaniel with lip gloss. Then there’s Nola, a saucy, sulky white girl who can’t dance on the poles, but who sells for $30 a back-seat pop. She gets restless sometimes, and DJay has to talk her back into the back seat. He sees her as more than just a ho, he promises she’s his “primary investor.”
Finally, there’s DJay’s biggest money maker, and biggest mouth, Lexus. Lexus is an unsupportive shrew, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only one of the women whose professional skills have brought her to the level where, she claims, she is ready to strike out on her own. Funny how the possibility of economic self-determination can make a woman forget her place: Lexus is worse than foul-mouthed and rambunctious, she’s also guilty of the most egregious sins a woman can commit: She’s unsupportive of his career. “You’ll never be anything better than what you are today,” she shouts. In Sanneh’s words, she tries to goads him into beating her up. But we couldn’t like him if he really hit girls, could we? Instead, DJay, whom Sanneh refers to as a “meek pimp,” just shoves her and her 2-year-old son out into the street. We never see them again.
DJay does eventually hit Shug (Sannah calls it “really just a light, almost friendly smack.”). And apparently she needed it; right away, Shug starts to sound better on the mike, and saves DJay’s song, which was sorely in need of a chorus and a hook. Shug has the voice of an angel, which she lends not to her blues, but to his:
“You know it’s hard out here for a pimp/when you tryin’ to get this money for the rent./For the Cadillacs and gas money spent/will have a whole lotta bitches jumpin’ ship.”
Bitches like Lexus do be jumping ship, and Nola gets uppity too sometimes, insisting that somewhere out there there’s more she wants to do than work for DJay. But not Shug. Shug knows she needed that slap. Shug takes care of her man: She gives him a gold necklace with his name to acknowledge his everlasting pimpitude. She thanks him, tremulously, for giving her the chance to sing on his album, never really aware that she saved the song. She flinches, but never talks back, when he stomps about the room in a rage. If it’s hard out there for a ho, what with all the unprotected sex with strangers and unplanned pregnancies, you’ll never hear her complain.
“See,” chokes DJay, eyes misting up, after Shug timidly offers him up an inspirational lava lamp during a recording session. “That’s what I call a bottom bitch.”
Even more troubling than the film’s message is its undeniable effectiveness: “Hustle and Flow” is brilliantly acted and beautifully shot, and if judged on the grounds of seductive appeal, it is a very good movie. So was “Gone With the Wind.” So was “Birth of a Nation,” or “Triumph of the Will,” for that matter. It’s precisely the “good” movies you have to watch out for. And “Hustle” whoops us like the eager tricks we are, letting a changed DJay rename his song “Shug’s Blues” and almost conning us into believing that its message of empowerment extends not just to DJay himself but to his mini-harem.
But if you have any doubts over what the film is really saying, and how ready we seem to be to hear it, just listen to the teenaged boy sitting behind me in the movie theater. As he watched Lexus mouth her way out of house and home, he shouted out a heartfelt warning to the only female character on screen who dared to be anything but a good ol’ bottom bitch.
Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.