Column: Can You Hustle and Flow with the Aristocrats? By P.M. Price

Tuesday September 06, 2005

When I went to see Hustle and Flow recently, I knew I was going to see a movie about a pimp approaching middle age who has lingering dreams of making it big, of doing something really important with his life before it’s too late. I also knew that this slice of struggling black life was written by a white guy named Craig Brewer and that the making of this film was the culmination of a hard-fought-for dream of his own. I didn’t know whether or not a pimp could be likable or at least, empathetic and I’m still not certain he can be.  

I do know that Terrance Howard, whom I have long admired, is a phenomenal actor. He brought depth and complexity to the lead role of “DJay” that could have been stereotypical. Anthony Anderson, as DJay’s partner (Key), broke through the funny fat guy stereotype and was allowed to stretch—he did a fine job. The supporting female cast, Paula Jai Parker (Lexus), Taraji P. Henson (Shug) and Taryn Manning (Nola), who comprised DJay’s stable of prostitutes all rendered fine performances. So what’s my complaint? 

Think of the last dramatic film you saw in which the black woman was the lead character or romantic interest. (Foxy Brown don’t count.) Quick! Time’s up. What we got in Hustle and Flow is the same thing we’re usually stuck with: Sapphire and Butterfly McQueen. “Well, hell,” you say. “These are prostitutes we’re talking about.” “I know,” I sigh. But, it’s still tiresome. 

Lexus is a hard-assed “ho” who don’t take no stuff, a la “Sapphire” of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” fame and almost every Hollywood movie and television show since. Lexus and DJay get along fine until she gets all up in his face and tells him he ain’t never gonna be nuthin’. DJay—his artistic soul pierced by her “evil bitch” tongue—kicks Lexus and her baby boy to the curb, sure to become another struggling single black woman turning tricks to feed her no-daddy baby. Shug’s character is slightly more sensitive although she initially appears to be brain damaged. Her constantly dazed expression calls to mind Butterfly’s lament in Gone with the Wind: “I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.” But then it occurs to me that many women caught in the web of prostitution have been severely abused—physically, mentally and emotionally—and that the fog which surrounds Shug is probably a result of such abuse (perhaps with a little drug abuse thrown in for good measure). 

The white prostitute, a Bo Derek look-alike, had more props. Nola is considered by DJay and his clientele to be special—exotic, even. When Nola protests DJay’s callous treatment of her and the fact that she also has unfulfilled dreams even though she cannot verbalize them, DJay tells her that all she needs is in order to feel better about herself is a suit. In the end, Nola is still turning tricks for her pimp—albeit in a pin-stripped suit—and has been convinced that that is dream enough for her. DJay is still hustling her, even from his prison cell, and she’s flowing right along with it. 

The “hustle” of The Aristocrats is that it documents the retelling of an old vaudevillian joke full of feces, vomit and deviant sex which flows from the mouths of over 100 comics like so much you know what. The details leading up to the punch line—which is always “The Aristocrats!”—become increasingly obscene and include graphic (and to these guys; hysterical) accounts of rape, incest and beastiality. (If anyone were to study the history of American culture by focusing on what makes white men laugh, it would answer a lot of questions about where we are today.) 

The creation of Paul Provenza and Penn Jilette, this 86-minute documentary is, Penn cautions, “not for everyone.” Hopefully, this is an understatement, although he adds, “I want everyone who sees our movie to enjoy it.” I must admit to laughing at some of the interpretations, the funniest jokes being those which were most off-formula. 

The most appealing aspect of the film is the sheer number of popular comics assembled around this joke (George Carlin, Shelly Berman, Eric Idle, Bill Maher, Carrie Snow, Robin Williams, Jason Alexander, The Smothers Brothers), each with their own perspective on both the history of the joke and the best way to tell it. Chris Rock, who does not offer a version of the joke, appears to have been thrown in gratuitously, perhaps so the producers could say that they did have one black guy in the film. Whoopi Goldberg attempts a version and comments that “the shockability of American audiences has gone way down” perhaps in an effort to explain why the jokes are so vile. I don’t know how she feels about the joke I found the most offensive, however. 

This “joke” is a reversal of the Artistocrats formula, inasmuch as it describes a group of people who are doing “aristocratic” things but have contrastingly vulgar names. This particular jokester—the only unidentified person in the credits—describes three “women of color” performing aristocratic feats; reciting Shakespeare, sipping tea and singing opera. What does one call these women? “Nigger cunts,” the comedian grins. “But, of course,” he chuckles, “You can’t say that.” But of course, (ha ha) he just did. And it isn’t funny, Penn. And not because it isn’t “politically correct.” The “joke” doesn’t make sense unless one accepts the premise that “women of color” are not only unsophisticated but are easily identifiable as “nigger cunts.” These guys don’t seem to get that racist jokes can only be funny to racists. 

One of the most memorable lines from Hustle and Flow (and I don’t mean “memorable” in a good way) is DJay’s declaration that “I don’t call a ho no bitch!” I am so weary of hearing one black woman after another being called “ho,” “bitch,” “cunt” and every other derogatory name under the sun, particularly absent a comparable calling out of the many talented, intelligent, classy, beautiful black women desperate for an opportunity to balance them out. I am certain that my mother and grandmothers felt the same way.