Going with <I>Flow: </I>Howard's ticket to stardom

Are the people who say Hustle & Flow will make Terrence Howard a star the same ones who "discovered" Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster, and Jamie Foxx in Ray?

Howard had already made over 20 films, some in lead roles, when I worked with him in Boycott five years ago. True, he and Jeffrey Wright sat with us extras at lunch instead of acting like divas, but he was a star to me.

He's finally done something the rest of the world can't ignore, especially when it's sandwiched between his roles in Crash and Four Brothers. In Hustle & Flow, Howard plays DJay, who represents anyone with artistic ambitions stuck in a job that keeps them from realizing their dream.

DJay works not in a cubicle but a Chevy, hustling weed and women in Memphis. He's strictly a small-time pimp"20 in the front, 40 in the back"– and lives with three of his women, one of whom is usually pregnant. Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) has had a son, who lives with them. Shug (Taraji P. Henson, who also deserves stardom from this movie) is close to delivering. Nola (Taryn Manning) is the new kid on the block.

Having reached the age at which his father's heart gives out sends DJay into midlife crisis mode. He's got poetry in his soul and wants to be a rapper, and things suddenly start coming together to make it a possibility. First a junkie trades him a keyboard for drugs. Then he runs into an old classmate, Key (Anthony Anderson), who's now a recording engineer. To complete the serendipity, homeboy Skinny Black (Ludacris), a platinum-selling rapper DJay knew when they went to different high schools, is coming back to Memphis for a Fourth of July party at Arnel's (Isaac Hayes) club.

DJay just has to make a demo and put it in Skinny's hands, and his future will be assured– or so he thinks. He starts working with Key, whose "nice" but bourgeois wife Yevette (Elise Neal) isn't thrilled with the association. Key brings in another musician, Shelby (D.J. Qualls), and DJay drafts Shug to sing backup.

Along the way, DJay cuts ties with one of his women and inadvertently makes another feel really good and the third feel really bad. He also makes Key realize how dissatisfied he is with his own life. The big day arrives and so does Skinny. Script contrivances make their meeting too much of an emotional roller-coaster for DJay, and it wouldn't be the Fourth of July without fireworks.

Hustle & Flow could be caught on the cusp between commercial and art films, being too cheap and gritty for lovers of the former while indie aficionados find the ending too "feel-good" or clich├ęd, being taken from frequent headlines (most recently involving Gucci Mane). With luck, both sides will embrace it because it's a good story, well told, that almost everyone can enjoy unless they have a serious aversion to rap music.

Virginia-born, Memphis-based writer-director Craig Brewer puts himself on the filmmaking map with this Sundance Audience Award winner; and if you don't know who Terrence Howard is, it's time you found out.