the most accomplished film critics most of them white, it must be said lose their minds. Whether its due to a sense of political correctness, low expectations, fear of racial confrontation or just plain ignorance, reviewers tend to suspend their critical faculties and evaluate black films not on the basis of story, acting or character development, but according to a peculiar criterion that really boils down to one question: Is it black enough? In the beginning, that meant a movie that jibed with simple images and social roles acceptable to white folk domestics, entertainers, comic relief and con men. (Hattie McDaniels history-making Oscar win forGone With the Wind
has, unfortunately, endured less as an acknowledgment of her talents than as an indictment of the industry that circumscribed those talents to fit an image that it wanted to see.)
Almost 70 years later, though it has been mitigated somewhat by the black freedom movement and the fitfully successful effort by blacks to seize control of their own media images, black enough still means blackness approved by a predominantly white mainstream culture. Of course, many blacks are themselves solidly part of the mainstream now and seemingly willing to accept the pejorative as status quo one of the many strange and insidious effects of freedom. But looking at ourselves through the eyes of others and believing what we see isnt anything new. What has changed markedly since the days of Gone With the Wind is the widespread embrace of black pathology, especially black urban pathology, as the standard for representative black images. Instead of non-threatening maids and minstrels, we now have whores and murderous gangstas being marketed as cool, hip and, above all, real. Such characterizations dont debase black people, were solemnly told, they honor them; they tell our essential truths. A pimp isnt a bad reflection on black folk hes our Everyman, our salt of the big-city earth. This is a new age; the old meanings dont apply anymore. Whats most disturbing to me is how willingly critics and other gatekeepers of popular culture routinely reinforce this kind of Orwellian logic. And increasingly, theyre going a step beyond, sanctioning these dangerous stereotypes as not only permissible, but human. Which brings me to Hustle & Flow.
We all know that this film had some built-in traction because the screenwriter, Craig Brewer, is white and therefore automatically controversial. But lets get some other things out of the way: Yes, John Singleton produced. Yes, the film has been championed by the likes of cinematic activist Spike Lee. Yes, Singleton and Lee have both made notable films of their own, some of which were specifically aimed at countering the black pablum coming out of Hollywood. Can they be wrong-headed sometimes? Self-serving, shortsighted, willing to ignore the content of a black independent film for the sake of proving that it too can find that coveted crossover audience, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, March of the Penguins and dozens of other low-budget hits of the past decade? In a word, yes. Now back to the subject at hand. I was suspicious from the moment I read all the prerelease Hustle hype and saw the lurid billboards advertising the film, which blanketed South-Central like so many velvet paintings. Even so, I went hoping for the best; nobody has to convince me that Terrence Howard is a good actor. But 15 minutes into a showing of the film at the ArcLight Theater, I realized that not even Howard, as the movies pimp-rapper protagonist, DJay, could temper the fact that Hustle & Flow is bound to be the most despicable film of 2005.
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At a time when white fantasies about black urban life have become routine, this movie, couched in full indie street cred courtesy of Sundance (where it won the Audience Award for dramatic feature), takes the genre to a level of exploitation and insult unique to the millennium. This is a nigger-fest minus some of the saturated color and amped soundtrack that a studio-produced movie would have in short, minus the gloss that at least acknowledges the cartoonishness of the whole enterprise. But no such self-awareness exists in Hustle and its stripped-down real world, where all black men are thugs, criminals or rap artists, or whats the difference, really? aspiring to be. Otherwise, theyre not authentic black men, which is one of the movies most pernicious racial messages (and, believe me, there are many). So intent is Brewer to stay on message that he turns DJays high-school buddy Key (Anthony Anderson), a middle-class man with a legitimate job, into the antihero a sap with a nice house, devoted wife and church habit who cant fulfill his destiny until he starts laying down tracks for Whoop That Trick (née Beat That Bitch). Too bad that Anderson, who skewered such tropes so brilliantly in Malibus Most Wanted, is stuck having to do this role with a straight face. He deserves something more evolved.
And then there are the women. In a movie that almost onanistically revels in its Madonna-whore complex, Elise Neal (as Keys wife, Yevette) has easily the most thankless role a soulless, sexless, screechy, head-swiveling sista-girl with perfect hair and nails who initially opposes her husbands hanging out with a pimp and his whores how unreasonable but who finally stops denying her own blackness and realizes that she, too, can share in the dream of Whoop That Trick. She comes around, literally, showing up at DJays ghetto studio at dinner time one evening with a platter of finger sandwiches and dill dip, suddenly as meek and compliant as one of DJays tricks. Speaking of which, Brewer, in another twisted attempt to inject some family values into the middle of all this, has DJay and his most devoted, downtrodden whore, Shug (the one who, under threat of pain, provides backup vocals for Whoop That Trick), share an Officer and a Gentlemanstyle kiss before DJay goes off to his big audition; she helps him on with his leather coat and places a giant gold medallion around his neck, like a loving wife sending her husband to the office with a briefcase. These are but two of many moments in Hustle that are supposed to be heartwarming, but are instead infuriatingly hollow. Then, adding insult to injury, Brewer perverts black history by conflating it with the effort to make a hit record out of Whoop That Trick framing the exploitative songs journey in can-do sentiments like I have a dream and By any means necessary. That Whoop That Trick serves as the movies sole vehicle of black ambition, the pinnacle of everybodys dreams black and white, male and female is not only hackneyed, its toxic. Martin and Malcolm are surely turning in their graves.
All of this is presented without an ounce of context. Believe it or not, I dont object to Terrence Howards character per se. I could suffer DJays foibles, even his tunnel vision about Whoop That Trick, but theres no compelling reason why we should. DJay riffs philosophical about dogs and men in the movies opening moments, but thats it for back story. Hes a pimp, Shug is a ho, Skinny Black (the usually self-deprecating Ludacris) is a snarling, profane, gold-toothed rapper evidently just because theyre black, and because this is Memphis. The comparison has been made before, but Ill make it again: How is it that the Mafia, Americas über-criminals, get such empathetic film treatment think Tony Sopranos therapy sessions and Ray Liottas ruminating voice-overs in GoodFellas and black criminals get squat? The only answer is that black criminality needs no explanation, just some celluloid to blow it up to 1,000 times its actual size. Talk about inequality: Not only is there a racially defined achievement gap, salary gap and health-care gap in this country theres a major story gap, too, and its getting filled in with more bullshit every year. Admittedly, black movies have a lot of catching up to do, because theyve always been less about story and more about entertainment shooting and swearing having replaced shuffling and grinning as the black opiate of choice. Changing the paradigm significantly has been a near-impossible task just ask Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Rusty Cundieff and a host of other thoughtful story-oriented black filmmakers whose stars should have risen much higher and faster than they did.
The only good thing I can say about Hustle & Flow is how effectively it reminded me of how much black folks are still tethered to their own worst images, even when they assume theyve made a clean break. At the movies end, when the lights came on, I was surprised by the exhaustion and fury I felt, the compulsion I had to stand up and say, louder than necessary for all within earshot to hear, how awful I thought the whole thing was and how glad I was to leave the theater and get back to the real real world. I felt immediately charged with changing peoples minds; DJay and his crew were as far from my own daily life as possible, but that was still, unquestionably, supposed to be me up there on the screen. Whatever my fellow moviegoers thought of my declamation, nobody challenged it. I didnt expect them to; race is what we like to see in the dark, not talk about in the light of day. As it happens, the next day, I went to a discussion group a salon of black people who met to talk for a couple of hours about the appointed topic: black film. It was a lively and absorbing session, but also discouraging. Too many people in the room felt that the ghetto-centric black movie was not only okay, it was here we go again real. Then one participant, a guy Ill call X, told a tale about a fellow black screenwriter who was casting about for a pimp-whore-ghetto story to write and quickly cash in on. In the course of his conversation with X, the screenwriter revealed a compelling story of his own that of a college graduate who had overcome hardships of all kinds to get an education and eventually break into the business. Why dont you write about that? X asked. The writer looked at him like he was mad. That, he said, is not a story. Not true: Its a story. Its just not a hustle. One day well figure out the difference.