It’s Every Man’s Right to Lay a Verse: Hustle & Flow
Here is the god’s honest truth: I thought it would be good, but not this good. The writers of Hustle & Flow, unlike many others where hip-hop is the traditional milieu, were completely in touch with the characters and, hence, in touch with the multitude of forces and ideas which befall an individual of the likes of “Djay” (Terence Howard).
Djay, our antihero, by all accounts, is of and among “the wretched of the earth”; a lumpenproletariat who makes his living working within the illegitimate margins of society. He is a pimp who is conflicted about his occupation and what he aspires to become. Djay, like all of us, but more acutely, walks the line between compassion and cruelty, and it is hip-hop which becomes his vehicle by which he articulates and becomes conscious of this conflict.
He discovers this vehicle when he is peddled a children’s Casio keyboard from a random panhandler. When Djay divulges his vision to rap to a former schoolmate who records choir music, they decide to lay down a demo together. During a writing session, Djay attempts to develop a hook, but comes off too intense with the line, “Beat that bitch”. His friend asks him to think about a way to say it different; a way that won’t turn off listeners.
At this point in the film we come to a dangerous crossroads where we either consign Djay’s music as nothing more than a validation of his misogynistic occupation, or, if one is paying attention, the implication that Djay is not angry at “his hoes”, but with something much, much larger…society?...poverty? “Whoop that trick” brings about the desired effect and they realize they have a winner.
After the empowering recording, the three coconspirators decide to take a break and step outside their makeshift studio, Djay’s quarters, to share a “blunt”. The awkward white producer, pausing every few seconds to take another hit and gather his thoughts, utters the profound statement which characterizes the entire film, “…it’s every man’s right to lay a verse…”
This statement reflects one of the principal contradictions of our time. On the one hand, it conveys in absolute American fashion, every man’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and his individual rights to express himself, and on the other hand, the limitations associated with that dream. Djay’s individuality is suppressed by larger social circumstances which keep his mode of existence in a crippled state and compels him, by hook or by crook, to subsist.
Much of the film is surrounded by Djay’s attempt to meet with “Skinny Black” (Ludacris). The prospect of winning over Skinny Black represents to him the hustle of his life of which no other is matched. When he has his opportunity, it appears that he has him in the palm of his hand, until an episode in the bathroom of a tavern reveals that Djay becomes the hustled.
Skinny Black represents the villain in us all. He is a possible mature result of Djay after his attempt to divorce himself from the people and conditions which shaped him. Part of what makes Djay human is the lingering conflict and the fact of his daily activities being rooted among regular people, whereas in Skinny Black it has been ever more repressed and his economic standing and fame represent the substantiation of this repression.
We often think of pimps nowadays with a binary lens; either they are the scum of the earth or they are glorified hustlers whose persona we oftentimes situate as “cool”: the pimp strut, lean, and gangsta whitewalls. The beauty of this film is that it captures the reality of their reciprocity. Neither a pimp nor any occupational character can be a pure positive or negation of anything.
The word pimp itself implies a transitory propensity nowadays. It obviously still retains its meaning, but just like “gay” and “nigga”, it contains ingredients which may result in its social mutation into something similar to hustling. In this film in particular this inclination exists to considering pimping in its abstract nature.
The film’s capacity to portray the characters dialectically allows us to mediate between all of these tendencies. A factory worker is neither ignorant and racist nor revolutionary and anti-capitalist. A cop is neither a wife beater and racial profiler, nor a hero and a savior. As human beings we are torn between a host of social forces. We can take on all of these characteristics and this internal battle of ideas manifests itself in different scenarios and at different times. The truth is that we can never understand Djay’s good nature unless we understand his ugliness.
It would do this film an injustice to say that one of Djay’s qualities eventually supersedes the other, but it is safe to say that his compassion strives to become the dominant. His compassion, however, is often submerged depending upon broader external circumstances. After all, it’s hard out here for a pimp.
“I don't think you understand this one right here might get banned/ Setting off a riot like we living in a battlestand/ But this the dirty dirty and that's the way it go/ Security be the main ones acting like some hoes/”