Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Taryn Manning “in charge” in Hustle & Flow


If Abigail Child had a weblog, I would have hoped that she would have written about Craig Brewer’s breakout film, Hustle & Flow. Her 1972 film, Game, a 40-minute documentary following the life of a likeable New York City pimp, directly anticipates the movie that garnered Terrence Howard a best actor Oscar nomination & scored the first Oscar for a rap song, It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp. The first time I saw Child’s film was at a COYOTE Film Festival in San Francisco sometime around 1977 or thereabouts. COYOTE, an acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, was the first attempt at a prostitute’s union in San Francisco, and Child’s film certainly fit their political agenda, breaking through all the stereotypes of the pimp as exotic Other, showing a fairly straightforward guy who was scrambling for a living & who, at other moments in his life, was more apt to do yoga than coke.

Hustle & Flow, which I just got around to seeing last weekend, is in the genre of struggling artist makes good against all odds, a film that at one time could have shown at San Francisco’s great Chinatown theater, The Times, where it no doubt would have been triple billed with the likes of 8 Mile & The Harder They Come. You can almost count on the probability that it will show up in due time in rotation on some cable network like VH1 or MTV or Spike. It’s far better than a lot of the films that do.

Hustle’s pimp, as I suspect you must know by now, wants to be a rap star, but the three women who work for him – one of whom is out of commission in the last stages of a pregnancy – are about as far from a gangsta posse as one might imagine. As much as anything, this film is about how the three women respond to Djay’s dream, unrealistic as it might be for a 35-year-old hustler. Unlike most other music-centric films, at least pre-Ray, Hustle is an actor’s film even more than it is the director’s. As he was as Cameron in Crash, for which he also easily could have received an Oscar nomination, Terrence Howard is on a terrific roll right now in which his sensitivities as an actor bring his characters alive right to their fingertips. His Memphis mumble & stylized do make him seem like a completely different human being than the actor who, in Crash, was struggling to make his way into the upper middle-class as a TV producer only to have it threatened when events reveal to him (if not to his wife) just how rapidly back into racial stereotypes & ghetto presumptions one can fall – it can be a simple as a speeding ticket.

Howard is surrounded by a terrific cast of supporting actors – there’s not a single weak actor in the ensemble – three of whom in particular stand out. Taryn Manning gives a chilling performance as Djay’s “prime investor,” the hooker who actually earns most of the little clan’s money. Her value as a commodity is simple – she’s white. Manning, the one-time Arizona state karate champion, comes across more street than any of the amateurs Larry Clark ever coaxes into his films. There is one scene, one of the most powerful in the film, when Djay has just thrown out Lexus, played by Paula Jai Parker, and her child, after Lexus has challenged his efforts to make a demo tape to give to rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris, another veteran of Crash, playing a character half way between Tupac & Snoop Dog, tho without the smarts of either). As Djay slams the door after leaving the howling Lexus & her screaming baby on the porch, the two remaining women cower as if they expect him to turn on them next. Manning’s presence in the scene is wordless, but as intense as any I’ve seen on film in some time. That’s the image that I will retain from this film far longer than any other.

A more minor role belongs to that of Shelby, the white boy music nerd who leaps at the chance to work on a record, performed by D.J. Qualls, whom I’ve seen once before in an episode of Law and Order. It’s a part with some subtext of the comic sidekick – a generation ago Michael J. Pollard would have gotten the role (as he did, say, in Bonnie and Clyde) – but Qualls makes it feel real in a way that this foil almost never does in the movies. Largely, it’s because he understates everything. The actors who don’t – Parker, Anthony Anderson & Elise Neal – never take on the depth of those who do. Taraji P. Henson, who plays the pregnant hooker, Shug, who inspires the fledging rap group by buying them a lava lamp & ends up recording the song’s hook, does the entire film looking as tho she’s about to burst into tears, without ever once doing so, and it’s that element of holding back that makes this role for her – as it is for Qualls, Manning & Howard – a breakout performance that should have a huge impact on her career.

Actor’s films differ from director’s in some fairly significant ways. For one thing, they don’t have to hang together entirely in order to work, where director-centric projects really have to cohere. The last film I saw before Hustle & Flow was Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, a film that uses amateurs in virtually all its roles & demands very little from them, and which manages to make it work because its self-contained nature casts the film very much into the Grant Wood mode Soderbergh is after. Hustle in comparison makes enormous demands on its cast & when it gets a tone wrong, as when Elise Neal overplays her role as an upwardly mobile manager, complaining at dinner to her husband that her bosses don’t see her as ruthless enough, it jars. When Djay and his crew intrude on the repast, Neal attempts to tone down her character, but she still stands out like an emu at a duck pond. Something that askew would have burst Bubble, but here it fades fairly rapidly because scene after scene offers such depth & richness of performances that Neal’s harpy really is only one off-tone instant in a much greater whole.