|Photo by Andrew
I’ve long believed that when it comes to judging black movies, the most
accomplished film critics — most of them white, it must be said — lose their minds.
Whether it’s 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 McDaniel’s history-making Oscar
win for Gone 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 isn’t 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 don’t debase black people, we’re solemnly told, they honor them; they tell our essential truths. A pimp isn’t a bad reflection on black folk — he’s our Everyman, our salt of the big-city earth. This is a new age; the old meanings don’t apply anymore. What’s most disturbing to me is how willingly critics and other gatekeepers of popular culture routinely reinforce this kind of Orwellian logic. And increasingly, they’re 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 let’s 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 movie’s pimp-rapper protagonist, DJay, could temper the fact that Hustle
& Flow is bound to be the most despicable film of 2005.
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 — what’s the difference, really? — aspiring to be. Otherwise, they’re not authentic black men, which is one of the movie’s most pernicious racial messages (and, believe me, there are many). So intent is Brewer to stay on message that he turns DJay’s 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 can’t 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 Malibu’s 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 Key’s 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 husband’s 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 DJay’s ghetto studio at dinner time one evening with a platter of finger sandwiches and dill dip, suddenly as meek and compliant as one of DJay’s 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 Gentleman–style 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 song’s journey in can-do sentiments like “I have a dream” and “By any means necessary.” That “Whoop That Trick” serves as the movie’s sole vehicle of black ambition, the pinnacle of everybody’s dreams — black and white, male and female — is not only hackneyed, it’s 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 don’t object to Terrence Howard’s character per se. I could suffer DJay’s foibles, even his tunnel vision about “Whoop That Trick,” but there’s no compelling reason why we should. DJay riffs philosophical about dogs and men in the movie’s opening moments, but that’s it for back story. He’s a pimp, Shug is a ho, Skinny Black (the usually self-deprecating Ludacris) is a snarling, profane, gold-toothed rapper — evidently just because they’re black, and because this is Memphis. The comparison has been made before, but I’ll make it again: How is it that the Mafia, America’s über-criminals, get such empathetic film treatment — think Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions and Ray Liotta’s 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 — there’s a major story gap, too, and it’s getting filled in with more bullshit every year. Admittedly, black movies have a lot of catching up to do, because they’ve 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 they’ve made a clean break. At the movie’s 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
people’s 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 didn’t 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 I’ll
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 don’t you write about that?” X asked.
The writer looked at him like he was mad. “That,” he said, “is not a story.” Not
true: It’s a story. It’s just not a hustle. One day we’ll figure out the difference.