Two (Depressing) Views of the Sex Trade

Chugging along in my quest to catch up on good movies I've missed, I returned to Into Video last week and brought back Born into Brothels and Hustle & Flow. Only once I'd already checked them out did I realize they're both portraits of prostitution, though from radically different viewpoints.

Born into Brothels portrays a group of seven kids who, as the title suggests, were brought up in the red light district of Calcutta. Their potential salvation comes in the form of a photographer who believes these kids' lives are worth documenting in pictures and who gives them cameras and photography classes to that end.

Brothels won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2004, and rightly so, I think: it's a stunning and thoughtful look at lives that are often abysmal but not without hope. It's painful to see these kids interact with the adults in their lives, a shocking proportion of whom slap them with swear-laden invective time and again. But amazingly, and much to their credit, the children largely stand up for themselves: one girl, having been roundly berated at the brothel well by one of the prostitutes, simply expresses shock at the woman's dirty mouth and politely carries her buckets back up the stairs.

It's imperative, I think, to watch the "where are they now?" feature on the DVD after watching the movie itself, because the follow-up softens the somewhat harsh ending of the film, showing that a few of the kids that seemed most in danger when the filmmakers left them have since moved on to better things. But the film on its own is a testament to a sort of superhuman strength--emotional, if not physical--that can be tapped into under the right (or, as the case may be, utterly wrong) conditions. It's a tiny flare of hope in a world of so much grief.

So what to make of Hustle & Flow? I so much wanted to love it, both because I was impressed with Terence Howard in Crash and because I'd heard him and H&F's director speak really eloquently about the film on "Fresh Air." But in the end, presenting a pimp as a sympathetic character is a tough sell, at least to this crowd.

I watched H&F with Dana and Jenn, who, by the end of the film (and for most of the "Behind the Scenes" feature) sat with their mouths agape, aghast at what was happening on screen. The movie is unabashed in its wish for us to care most about Howard's Djay, more even than we care about the prostitutes working for him; in "Behind the Scenes," the filmmakers come out and say that the film is one in which the women are meant to stand behind their men.

Fair enough, I suppose--it is a film about a pimp, after all, and the next strongest characters are the men helping him record the songs he hopes will be his ticket to a better life. But if it's hard out here for a pimp, it's even harder for a ho, and the movie doesn't even begin to go there.

Maybe I'd feel more fondness for Hustle & Flow if I'd watched it on its own, rather than the night after I saw Born into Brothels, when that film was still so fresh in my mind. And maybe I expected to much of Terence Howard (and Ludacris, for that matter) after Crash. I just know that, although I was willing to suspend judgment and keep myself open to the possibility of feeling sympathy for an unsympathetic character, the movie let me down. Here's hoping it's not Terence Howard's greatest legacy.

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