I haven’t seen his debut “The Poor and Hungry” and his upcoming “Black Snake Moan” (awesome title!) is only in pre-production, but based on “Hustle & Flow” alone, I get the feeling that Craig Brewer wants to be the next Jack Hill. There are many other filmmakers who got unto the Blaxploitation bandwagon in the 1970s, but Hill’s Coffy is one of the rare ones in which the urban cool is backed with actual pathos and drama. Jackie Brown was another, and now so’s “Hustle & Flow”.

It’s not just the old fashioned yellow opening titles font (complete with copyright number), the funky score, the gritty cinematography, the Isaac Hayes bit part, the raw sexuality & violence and how the protagonist is a struggling black man trying to keep his dick hard in a cruel and harsh world (to quote Buggin’ Out). What “Hustle & Flow” does, like Blaxploitation at its best, is make you understand and empathize with the ghetto lifestyle without sugarcoating it. This is probably the grittiest film I’ve seen all year, but it’s also one of the more emotional, with sweat, tears and grime pouring out of every scene.

Terrence Howard (who’s having an amazing year between this and Crash) stars as Djay, a North Memphis pimp and dope dealer who’s entering some kind of midlife crisis. “Man is like a dog,” he likes to say, and it might be all about “pain and pussy” as someone else explains later, but unlike a dog, Man is aware of its own mortality. Man knows History is unkind to those who spend all their days licking their ass. Man wants to leave his mark. Man wants to be able to say he gave it his all. “Every man’s got a right to contribute a verse.”

Djay lives in a little house with his $20 hoes, whom he pimps out from the back of his piece of shit car. It ain’t always pretty, especially considering how one of them’s got a baby boy and another is pregnant from God knows who. Poor kids… The film is heartbreakingly convincing in its depiction of this milieu. Looking through IMDb, I saw that Taryn Manning, Taraji Henson and Paula Jai Parker were actual actresses, but otherwise I would have assumed they were junkies and hookers, that’s how good they are. Howard’s Djay is also eerily lifelike, really looking like he’s been around the block too many times, showing all the weariness in the world in his eyes and talking with the offbeat rhythm of one who’s hit the pipe one too many times.

Hence, it’s all the more exhilarating when these folks at the bottom of the barrel manage to get it together long enough to do something worthwhile. Between chance encounters with hobbyist mixmasters (Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls, both laying off the clowning and coming off totally street) and platinum rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) coming back to town for a private party at the local watering hole, Djay decides to start to flow again like back in the day. He used to talk a good game, but now his hustle is barely paying rent – he’s not over the hill yet, but he’s getting there. He’s always talked the talk, now he’s gotta prove that he can walk the walk.

That’s a lot of clichés right there, and you could say the same about how one subplot builds up to a big intense kiss, but the movie actually earns these beats. Great tracks don’t magically materialize, we see the characters work hard to cut them, working on the beats and lyrics, etc. I also love how, while he can be superfly charismatic, Howard’s not afraid to be unlikable, vulnerable, pathetic even. Djay is not a hero, and this story isn’t about his glory days. Things are more complicated than that; everybody’s gotta have a dream, but not every dream’s gotta come true…

Craig Brewer doesn’t have a lot of experience behind the camera and it sometimes shows, so “Hustle & Flow” isn’t quite as polished as the similarly themed 8 Mile, but it’s kinda fitting for it to be a little rough around the edges. I think Brewer doesn’t even want to be on the A-list along with Curtis Hanson, he’d probably be happier making great B-movies like Jack Hill once did.