Craig Brewer's sweaty, feel-good story about a small-time pimp and dope dealer making one last, desperate grab at his long-deferred dream is driven by longtime supporting player Terrence Howard's subtle, go-for-broke performance as Memphis mack Djay. Djay used to spin records in local clubs and dream about making it big, but instead drifted onto the path of least resistance, selling weed and cut-rate booty. Djay shares a shotgun shack with his ladies — mouthy stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and her toddler, pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and former lot-lizard Nola (Taryn Manning), who has butt-length blonde cornrows and no clue what she wants out of life except that it doesn't involve peddling her fanny in perpetuity. But Djay's life is no Blaxploitation fantasy; they're all just scraping by, even by the undemanding standards of their rundown neighborhood. Two coincidences rekindle Djay's dormant love of music: an accidental reunion with old friend Key (Anthony Anderson) at a convenience store and a conversation with local bar owner Arnel (Isaac Hayes). Key is a sound engineer whose creativity is shriveling under a relentless barrage of pay-the-rent gigs and domestic chatter — his wife, Yevette (Elise Neal), is a good, churchgoing woman, but her voice could blister the paint on God's heavenly throne. Arnel tells Djay that Skinny Black (Ludacris), a hugely successful, Memphis-born rapper whom Djay knew slightly when they were teenagers, will be throwing a Fourth of July party at Arnel's joint. The angles meet at the corner of hustle and flow: If Key will help Djay shape his sound — his "flow" — into something commercial and Skinny Black can be hustled into getting behind it, Djay might just have a shot. Key not only buys in — over Yevette's loudly unspoken reservations — but adds vending-machine stocker Shelby (DJ Qualls), a skinny white boy with a beat box and an unerring ear for a juicy hook, to the mix. The project gives them purpose; they jerry-rig a studio in the house, cobble together equipment and as the Fourth draws closer, the makeshift family — even Shug and Nola get into the act — transforms Djay's potent free-form raps into blistering krunk tracks. Memphis native Brewer pours a lifetime of Southern discomfort into a crowd-pleasing fable whose Cinderella narrative is offset by a richly unpredictable sense of place and character. Its faint glow of hope comes shrouded in the possibility of bitter disappointment, but it casts a beguiling light.