"Hustle & Flow" may be gritty but atmosphere is vivid

Like "8 Mile" a couple of years back, Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" is a gritty, unprettified rendition of one of the oldest stories in the world: a talented nobody follows a dream and, through the act of artistic creation, becomes a somebody.

That the art is hip-hop music and the artist a small-time pimp (played, with impeccable control, by Terrence Howard) would seem to limit the audience for Brewer's film, but the young writer/director manages to create a vivid world in the sultry Memphis heat. You walk out humming the movie's central rap tune; it wraps itself around your head, whether you want it to or not.

Brewer's a talented filmmaker who gave himself a big challenge in this film: He's centering it on a hero who's neither likable or admirable, and sometimes downright despicable.

It's easy to be repelled by aspects of "Hustle & Flow," particularly the pimp DJay's attitudes toward the women in his employ and the film's seemingly casual acceptance of his exploitation of very young women.

But just as you're ready to write off Brewer's film, it grabs you — the women start to emerge as tough, nuanced individuals with stories of their own, and DJay's inarticulate dreams begin to take shape.

On a shabby Memphis street where the noise of rickety air-conditioners pierces the summer heat, DJay's house becomes a makeshift recording studio, and the prostitutes Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and Nola (tiny-voiced Taryn Manning, who marches on her sky-high platform heels like a determined soldier) become part of the process of creation. Layers of voices and instrumentation eventually complete the song, and DJay now has something new to hustle: himself.

As with most follow-your-dreams stories, onscreen and off, things don't go especially smoothly for DJay, and the film ends on an ambiguous note and a determined expression. "Hustle & Flow" fairly drips with atmosphere and faded, sun-baked colors. Their lyrics are almost spoken and their dialogue is almost sung, in a laid-back Memphis rhythm that's infectious. The film is uneven, and DJay isn't always interesting enough to carry the story. But every now and then, Brewer pulls off a near-miracle with his flinty characters: He lets us, for a moment, slip into their lives — and sing their song.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Hustle & Flow," with Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson, Paula Jai Parker, Elise Neal, DJ Qualls, Chris Ludacris Bridges, Isaac Hayes. Written and directed by Craig Brewer. 114 minutes. Rated R for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence. Several theaters.