With his piercing hazel eyes and casual sex appeal, Terrence Howard has been a magnetic supporting player in films like The Best Man, Boycott, Hart's War and this year's Crash. Howard gets a well-deserved star showcase with Hustle & Flow, the story of a low-level Memphis pimp and drug dealer with dreams of making it as a rap musician. The 36-year-old actor takes a potentially alienating role and makes it both compelling and surprisingly sympathetic. Writer-director Craig Brewer may sidestep the more unsavory aspects of the character, but with Howard as his charismatic lead, audiences will be seduced into setting aside their moral qualms and rooting for this hip-hop hustler.

Howard actually downplays his good looks with a ratty wardrobe, long curls and slurred accent, but he still dominates the screen as the ambitious Djay. We first meet him as he cruises the Memphis streets in his beat-up car, soliciting clients for Nola (an excellent Taryn Manning), his feisty but vulnerable number-one hooker. Djay's stable also includes the very pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and the mouthy Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who is soon ejected from his ramshackle household.

Djay's musical ambitions are fueled when he finds a used Casio keyboard and renews an old friendship with Key (a nicely subdued Anthony Anderson), a married sound engineer who records local gospel musicians. Key then recruits an unlikely partner, Shelby (DJ Qualls from Road Trip), a rail-thin white boy with a gift for laying down heavy beats, for a makeshift studio set up in Djay's house.

A high point of the film is watching Djay, Key and Shelby struggle to create a potent rap number in the Southern style known as "crunk." Djay is a talented rapper (and so, by extension, is the actor who plays him), but the magic eludes them until Djay brings in Shug to sing the all-important, hooky bridge: "You know it's hard out here for a pimp, when you're trying to get the money for the rent." Piece by piece, take by take, the foursome assemble what sounds like a potential hit.

Djay then puts all his hopes in a reunion with Skinny Black (real-life rapper and actor Ludacris), an old high-school friend who has become a major music star. Skinny is returning to Memphis for a few days, and Djay hopes to slip him his tape (he doesn't have the wherewithal to make a CD) when he visits the club managed by his friend Arnel (played by R&B icon Isaac Hayes). Initially hostile and dismissive, Skinny Black is intrigued when Djay evokes the down-home roots that made Skinny's early recordings special, and he invites the smooth-talking supplicant into his hard-drinking inner circle for the night. At first it looks as if Djay has pulled off the ultimate sales rap, but his encounter with the arrogant star takes a dark and drastic turn.

Writer-director Brewer may romanticize his struggling hero, but there's nothing romantic about the milieu of Hustle & Flow. Filmed on location in rundown Memphis neighborhoods, the movie has an authentically tattered and dingy mise-en-scène that makes all too clear how much is at stake for Djay and his extended "family." That sense of place and Howard's magnetic performance make Hustle & Flow much more than a conventional tale of show-biz dreamers.
-Kevin Lally