Hustle & Flow

“Hustle & Flow” is a movie about rap music, which means, perforce, that it is also about guns and sex. It is the black version of Eminem’s “8 Mile,” which many will argue should have been black to begin with.

It is not as good as “8 Mile,” though, and it certainly doesn’t warrant the attention it got from distributors when it premiered at Sundance. In fact, much of it is unintentionally funny, being the story of a Memphis pimp who wants to leave the world of pimping and become a rapper, though once he achieves that, all he raps about is pimping. So I guess there’s no pleasing some people.

The man in question is DJay (Terrence Dashon Howard), a mildly successful hustler with a handful of hos and a stormy relationship with girlfriend/lead whore Nola (Taryn Manning). Inspired by the new stardom of Skinny Black (Ludacris), a local boy who has recently achieved fame as a rapper, DJay sets up a makeshift studio in his house with his friend Key (Anthony Anderson) and begins recording.

The conditions are not exactly state-of-the-art. They have to turn off the electric fans when the microphones are on, then turn them back on between takes to ward off the oppressive heat. DJay also must plead with his neighbors to turn their own music down, because his un-soundproofed studio is picking it up.

But from primitive circumstances can come genius, and DJay’s masterpiece is called “Whoop That Trick,” a mournful ode to the woes of pimping on which Sugar (Taraji P. Henson), a sweet, simple-minded, pregnant hooker, sings backup. Visions of fame and fortune begin to percolate in DJay’s contemplative little head.

This chunk of urban angst is written and directed by Craig Brewer, and he gives it the gritty, graphic feel that such a story undoubtedly requires. And to Terrence Dashon Howard’s credit, he manages to make DJay — who is, let us not forget, a violent flesh-trader — a somewhat sympathetic character, flawed but honest. But he cannot overcome DJay’s inherent ugliness, and the movie as a whole feels self-consciously “important,” as if it’s trying too hard to be a rising-up-from-the-streets story as powerful as “8 Mile” was.

C+ (1 hr., 54 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, some nudity, a bit of violence.)