“In Hustle, we can appreciate Nola’s (Taryn Manning) yearning to be more than a pimp’s pussy cash box …”
Hmmmm … a film about a street hustling pimp with rap star aspirations … how special, another ghetto rags to rap riches movie ‘cause Eminem’s 8 Mile (2002) hasn’t been remade enough. Still, I swallowed my considerable skepticism and went to see it like a good cultural critic should. Surprisingly, Hustle & Flow offers a bit more of an interesting and intelligent treatment of the ghetto rags-to-riches formula and blessedly avoids the Hollywood polish of such movies as 8 Mile. Writer-director Craig Brewer’s gritty Southern ‘hood drama offers an unflinching physical and social portrait of contemporary Memphis street life. While it retains the inherent phallocentric dominance that has long structured such films, it offers a significant and unique contribution to the dialogue about ghettocentric cinematic representations.
The imagery of black female sexuality, particularly that associated with poor and working-class black women has long been a controversial and disturbing issue for African American audiences because of the historical problem of racist representations. In the nineteenth century, Euro-American scientists and cultural theorists associated the very bodies of African women with sexual abnormality. Through much of the twentieth century, American popular culture imaged black women as problematically hypersexual or asexual, bitchy, domineering, emasculating, unfeminine, and unwomanly. Encapsulated somewhere between slave-era notions of the Mammy and contemporary notions of the “Jezebel,” the portrait of sexualized black women encompasses contemporary stereotypes of ghettocentric lower class women, which Hip Hop culture — rap videos and ghetto action films — have popularized.
Hustle & Flow at least adds a bit of flesh to the representations of such characters. D-Jay, played deliciously by Tarence Howard, stars as the anti-hero pimp with rap success dreams who is, unlike the more popularized black pimp archetype, unadorned and materially poor. Though D-Jay is the film’s center, the female characters build the pathos of his representation and much of the film’s richness. In ghetto action films since the 1970s blaxploitation genre, white and black female characters have by and large been treated in simple terms: blond, po’ white trash trophy ho’ (Nola in Hustle), adoring black girlfriend and/or ho’ whom the hero may treat deferentially or not (Shug in Hustle), the sapphire-like fussy bitch (Lexus in Hustle), and the unsupportive, cold, uptight, black middle-class woman (Yevette in Hustle).
In Hustle, we can appreciate Nola’s (Taryn Manning) yearning to be more than a pimp’s pussy cash box who climbs in and out of back alley cars on demand. When D-Jay pimps her out to an aging white store salesman for a high-tech microphone, Nola demands her right to have a say in the use of her sexual body. She tells D-Jay that she realizes the mind game and wordplay that he utilizes to keep her tricking ‘cause sometimes she “needs” him to mess with her mind. Rather than the typical simple portrait of an adoring, blonde whore blindly obeying her pimp, we glimpse Nola’s efforts to resist being dehumanized. Though their economic relationship certainly demonstrates the disturbingly unequal distribution of power that defines such relationships, it nevertheless stretches beyond the popular cinematic representation. The film realistically portrays their street relationship but at the same time complicates it a bit by positioning them as hanging buddies and friends. Even more remarkably,Hustle & Flow manages to acknowledge the reality of black men’s struggles in harsh environments and racialized women’s varying worth on the street — Nola performs the fantasy of white female blondeness. The film avoids falling into manipulating racial codes to sensationalize the narrative.
Given his career-defining cycle of phallocentric ghetto films, it’s no surprise that director John Singleton produced Hustle & Flow. Yet, for all of his ability to capture the gritty, realistic aura of ghettocentric black masculinity in films like the now classic Boyz N the Hood and Baby Boy, Singleton’s portrayals of women have played more to popular notions of lower-class and middle-class black female types rather than complex portraiture; they are part of the color of ghetto life in narratives that dramatize poor black men’s struggles to make it.
It is the role of Shug, played so convincingly by Taraji Henson, that provides Hustle & Flow‘s most compelling alternative envisioning of young, ghettocentric black women. With her soft-spoken voice, earnest face, and innocent demeanor, Shug reverberates, of course, with nuances of the black whore and sexualized girlfriend that we’ve seen before in Shaft, Superfly, Baby Boy, and others. Shug’s world revolves around D-jay; through her gaze, he is heroically romantic and powerful. It is painfully clear that being D-Jay’s “bitch” represents an honor and hallmark of achievement for her. Even her evolution from squeaky, “Prissy-like” voice to blues-tinged Hip Hop songstress cannot be dismissed from its phallocentric context. It is D-Jay’s demand that she sing the line “it’s hard on a pimp . . .” like a woman pushing a baby out of her body or one caught in the throes of sexual pleasure that brings the power of her vocal ability out. And the song’s hook does not, after all, speak to how hard it is on a “bitch” or a “sista” or “woman.” Though Shug helps make D Jay’s song — it’s the missing piece at first to his “flow” — Shug occupies the role of the ever-devoted, underappreciated girlfriend who helps to actualize the dream of the heroic pimp.
Notwithstanding these features, the realism of such women’s existence intersects with the poignancy and dignity of a woman we are allowed to see as intrinsically tender, and loving, loyal, sensitive, and thoughtful. Shug’s lack of sophistication only heightens the tragicomic aura that her character embodies. The Shug-type character has been treated in extremes in ghettocentric cinema, either simplistically silly and comical or tragic. In Hustle, we are touched at Shug’s efforts to articulate her fears and feelings and connect lovingly to the makeshift family around her, including the impossible Lexus.
The most triumphant moment in the film might not be the ones overtly set up to be so — for example, the last scenes picturing Nola’s transformation to the woman in charge in pin-striped mini, hustling body and charm to get D-Jay’s rap on local radio or the moment when it actually does make it on the air. Nor is it the moment Shug reveals her ability to “push” that song out.
It occurs as Shug helps D-Jay prepare to give rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) his tape. Shug presents D-jay with a piece of rapper bling bling, a gold-plated necklace bearing his name. She thanks him for the honor of having her voice on his songs, for being able to be in his life and a part of his flow. It is hauntingly sad when she expresses how much it made her feel “special,” because by this point we understand how much this has been more than Shug has ever gotten the privilege of expecting. It becomes disturbingly uncomfortable when she ends with quiet acceptance of their inevitable break because she knows he’ll move “on up” and have better singers. When D-Jay bids her goodbye and steps out the door, there is a heartbreaking second of disappointment. We want more from him for Shug, a more pointed manifestation of appreciation for this “round the way black girl” who always has his back. We get it when D-Jay rushes back inside and kisses her long and passionate, “owning” her as his woman rather than one of his “bitches.”
The cast of women completes with the other two less radically envisioned characters Yevette (Elise Neal), the proper, working-class wife of D-Jay’s producer Key (Anthony Anderson); and D-Jay’s stripper-whore, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker). While Yevette first appears in eerily familiar terms as a middle-class aspiring, uptight black woman who doesn’t fully support her husband’s aspirations, in the end her acceptance of his dreams and the relaxation of her middle-class demeanor supports the film’s unapologetic and realistic portrayal of Memphis ghetto life. Less redeemable is Lex, the trash-talking stripper-prostitute who beats up on D-Jay’s ego. While the Lex character cannot be dismissed as merely distorted imagery, she is primarily a ghetto female type that we’ve rarely seen complexly humanized on screen. Instead, Lex stands as the model of the dominant cinematic representation of young, black female ghetto identity, which we’ve seen in classic black-male-produced films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Singleton’s Baby Boy.
Hustle & Flow doesn’t stray from pop culture’s dominant image of black female ghetto identities, but at least it bothers to sound a deeper — if short — note for the “round the way girl.”