Grade: B

By all rights an MTV-produced movie about a pimp who hopes to become a rapper should be terrible, a hopelessly “with-it” take on the moldy Hollywood tale about a little guy grasping for the American Dream. But against the odds Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” is a pretty good little flick–gritty, well-acted and, up to the too-cute finale, mostly worth working to suspend disbelief over. It can’t entirely overcome the formulaic nature of the plot, but comes closer than you’d expect.

There are quite a few reasons for this, but the biggest is certainly Terrence Howard, who cuts a fascinating, charismatic figure as DJay, the Memphis low-life who tires of his small-time status with three hookers in his stable. Howard is so good, tossing off Brewer’s colorful dialogue with sleazy style to spare and moving with feral grace, that he almost makes you forget the implausibility of the character’s decision to change careers by writing rap lyrics based on his life. His inattention to his duties to the girls leads one of them, the tart-tongued Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) to bad-mouth him so viciously that he chucks her and her baby out of the house. But the other two lend their support to his efforts. Nola (Taryn Manning), a sweet, naive small-town type, even reluctantly allows herself to be used as barter for a microphone that DJay needs to record his songs, while pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) ultimately adds her voice to the choruses on the tracks. Even more helpful is an old friend of his, the chubby, good-natured Key (Anthony Anderson), who’s been recording church hymns and agrees–against the wishes of his dubious wife (Elise Neal)–to provide the equipment and expertise DJay needs to make a demo. Key also brings aboard keyboardist-engineer Shelby (DJ Qualls), a spindly white guy who proves not only surprisingly adept in setting down the electronic rhythms but a natural peacemaker when tempers flare. In the last act, DJay tries to get a visiting home-town rapper named Skinny Black (Chris Ludacris Bridges) to listen to his demo when the guy visits the bar run by their common buddy Arnel (Isaac Hayes), but learns how hard it is to break through. The spasm of violence that follows is definitely too easy an out from a narrative perspective, but it’s better staged than one might fear. The jailhouse coda, on the other hand, is way over the top–so much so that it nearly ruins all the nifty stuff that’s gone before.

Happily, Howard’s good enough to carry us through even that bumpy conclusion. And he’s got some strong support. Anderson sheds his usually bumptious persona to make Key a big-hearted guy capable of holding his own against DJay, and Qualls is pleasantly goofy. In fact, it’s nice that the racial card means so little here, a point emphasized not only by Quails’ presence but also that of Manning, whose Nola possesses a sweetness that’s poignant in this context. Henson threatens on occasion to cross the line into the maudlin, but especially in tandem with Howard resists the temptation. After “Crash,” Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is almost unrecognizable as the sleazy star–perhaps a good thing for his future screen career, as he overdoes the boozed-up bit.

Helped enormously by Howard, Brewer endows “Hustle & Flow” with a nervous energy that’s infectious, but he’s willing to slow down for the occasional dialogue-driven set-piece as well. Amelia Vincent’s photography gives the Memphis neighborhood the grubby appearance the story requires, and Billy Fox’s editing keeps things on the move. Even the music (supervised by Scott Bomar) works without becoming an extreme irritant.

“Hustle & Flow” isn’t perfect, but thanks to Howard’s amazing turn it’s strong enough that even a person who hates rap should find more to admire here than not.