Everybody gotta have a dream
This 2005 movie follows small-time hustler DJay (Terrence Howard, outstanding in this leading role) during a hot summer in Memphis. DJay supports himself by selling pot and pimping women: raucous and curvaceous Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who works as a stripper; tough-as-nails blonde Nola (Taryn Manning), who peddles her wares out of the passenger seat of DJay's beat-up Chevy; and sweet motherly Shug (Taraji P. Henson), whose modus operandus, whatever it is, is temporarily abandoned due to her advanced pregnancy. The four live in a ramshackle rental with Lexus' young son and eke a living out on the hard streets of the city.
One day, delivering pot to a convenience store clerk, DJay meets up with a friend from high school, Key (Anthony Anderson). Key once dreamed of being a record producer, but is now reduced to recording gospel choirs and courtroom depositions. He's married to Yevette (Elise Neal), a pink collar worker aspiring to management who is (understandably) none too amused when her husband and his old friend decide to chase their adolescent dreams. They cobble together a recording studio in DJay's house and work the raps that he scrawls in a little notebook. The plan is for DJay to present the resulting songs to Skinny Black (Ludacris), who went from selling his tapes from the trunk of his car on their local streets to hip hop stardom, and who will be at the local bar on the fourth of July.
Thus goes the typical rags-to-riches story that is the American dream, here played out in a very unHollywood setting. The movie imparts a visceral sense of sweaty summer streets on the wrong side of tracks. The hero, DJay, is no saint: in the most brutal scene, he throws Lexus out of the house, plopping her screaming son in his walker on the porch beside her. The hard-hitting lyrics DJay pens are drawn from his life, complaining of how "it's hard out here for a pimp", trying to get money for rent while keeping "the bitches" from running off. A touch self-pitying, but also tough and raw and reflective of the life he leads.
Yet the movie is also naive, shying away from plumbing the depths, so making the dream still recognizable, even in this rough, low-rent environment. The movie hints at abuse - Shug cowers sometimes when DJay glares at her - but DJay never beats any of the women in the film. Though he sells drugs, his illicit merchandise stays safely with pot, never veering to the really scary street drugs like crystal meth or crack. Even Yevette comes around, showing up at the door with a tray of sandwiches and staying on to chant "whoop that trick" with the gang. (The name of the song has been changed from "beat that bitch" , in the interests of attracting airplay; for the same reason, the suggested alternative, "stomp that ho", is also rejected. This is one of the amusing moments in the film; my other favourite is when Key brings in Shelby (D.J. Qualls) to help lay down some beats. "You know he white, right", mutters DJay to Key, who responds, "No, he just light-skinned.")
This is writer and director Craig Brewer's first feature, and he apparently hustled himself for some years to get it made, only able to proceed when John Singleton stepped up as producer. The film made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival and scored a lucrative distribution deal. Howard was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Rappers Three 6 Mafia won for their song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp", and their excitement on winning was a welcome interlude of spontaneity during the dull ceremony.
This is a good movie that effectively walks the line between gritty verisimilitude and starry-eyed dreams, buoyed by excellent acting and a cool Memphis soundtrack. Recommended.