Djay (Terrence Howard) is a small-time Memphis pimp approaching forty with some reservations. He has a collection of three prostitutes who live with him, one who works as a stripper, one heavily pregnant and another who drives around with him in his car looking for men to pick up for twenty dollars a go. There must be more to life than this, he believes, as he has got nowhere near fulfilling his childhood dreams as a local boy made good, rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), has. So when he has a chance meeting with old friend Key (Anthony Anderson), an equally dissatisfied recording engineer, he realises they can both benefit...
Writer and director Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow sparked controversy when it was released, mainly because it sought to have us relate to a pimp, historically not the most attractive of movie characters. Although this had a precedent in seventies blaxploitation such as The Mack, there was a chance that it would go a little more mainstream, especially when the film was Oscar nominated for Howard's heartfelt performance and won for the track "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" - many grumbles were aired when it was performed at that year's Academy Awards ceremony.
Those grumbles summed up the naysayers reaction to what they judged to be a lowlife drama not worth giving the time of day to, yet for it's champions Brewer had found sympathy in an unlikely place. Certainly few would quibble that the prostitutes deserved a better life, but it's Djay ordering them about that stuck in the craw for a number of audience members. Why should we care about whether he fulfills his fantasies or not? Brewer's answer was that everyone has potential, and if they climb out of the rut they have been stuck in, no matter how sleazy and disreputable, then they can feel they have worth, if only for a while.
So this was an empowerment tale, but Djay lifts up those around him with his ambitions as well. Key is around the same age and is also feeling that mid-life crisis looming early because what he really always wanted to do was be a record producer, and he sees in his old mate the potential to be just that. Roping in two of the prostitutes, Nola (Taryn Manning) and the pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson), to assist (the argumentative third - Paula Jai Parker - is unceremoniously booted out for not being a team player), Djay has his own producer, backing singer and budding manager, and with the assistance of engineer Shelby (DJ Qualls) they make musical magic.
The tracks they come up with make the plot akin to a group of friends building a rocket to the Moon in their back yard, with an extremely high degree of professionalism all round, from what we hear, but if there's one thing you take away from the film it's Brewer's love of music; if there's another it's his optimism. That optimism looks set to be thwarted when Djay takes a cassette to a local bar where Skinny is spending the evening, and initially seems to have won him round. But any obstacles are simply hiccups, and the true cast of wish fulfilment settles over the characters by the end. Does this make Hustle & Flow immoral? Or is Brewer seeing the good in people who have the initiative to make their own luck in spite of the hand life has dealt them? It may be contrived, but that happy ending is hard fought for. Music by Scott Bomar.