We gave it an A-
The 16mm indie Hustle & Flow, featuring 36-year-old Terrence Howard as a barely-scraping-by Memphis pimp who ditches his evil hustle to become a rapper, garnered raves this past January at Sundance, where it netted producer John Singleton a three-picture contract with Paramount Pictures worth $16 million — the biggest such deal in the Park City film fest’s history. Suddenly, Howard, a low-profile bit player who’d labored admirably in the shadows of walking paychecks like Jennifer Lopez and Colin Farrell, was bona fide bankable. But like Djay, the conflicted criminal he inhabits to simmering perfection, Howard is at a crossroads — possibly a crisis — of calling.
After years of playing mostly sidekicks and scoundrels in over 30 films, from Dead Presidents to Ray, Howard had grown hungry for marquee parts. ”I want to do Hitch,” he says. ”Everybody knows what the filet mignon is on the menu.” A religious man, he was also feeling his faith compromised by the debauched souls he was portraying. When he got the script for Hustle & Flow, he blew it off as more of the same. ”I didn’t read it,” he says. ”I just heard ‘pimp, prostitutes, selling weed.’ That’s not what I want to do.”
But producer Stephanie Allain and upstart writer-director Craig Brewer were adamant, despite Howard’s objections and those of every studio where they tried to get the film made. ”Because he wasn’t an established name,” says Brewer, ”they thought it would be better for a rapper to take [the role].” Allain maintains the part needed ”someone who’d been around,” she says, ”someone who was approaching the point in their life when they thought, ‘Is this it?”’ In the end, Singleton put up the cash, but it was Howard’s frustration-fueled performance that made Brewer’s pimp-with-a-conscience premise fly. Says Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale, who partnered with MTV Films to buy the finished flick for $9 million, ”Terrence makes you believe his character doesn’t want to be there.”
While Hustle & Flow is hardly a mainstream slam dunk, its Sundance heat should guarantee plenty of critical attention. And with its contemporary crunk themes and MTV affiliation, the movie could woo the much-coveted hip-hop generation. All of this should spell good news for Howard, who also appears in this May’s Crash with Don Cheadle and Sandra Bullock and has just wrapped Singleton’s Four Brothers. ”I knew that Terrence was going to get such a bump off of Hustle & Flow,” says the Boyz N the Hood helmer, ”that I wanted to benefit first.”
(This is an online-only excerpt of a feature appearing Entertainment Weekly’s Summer Movie Preview 2005 issue.)