Alan Spearman/Courtesy of Crunk Pictures
Terrence Howard missed his first big shot when he pulled out of Shaft to play Muhammad Ali in a TV movie, and Shaft director John Singleton never let him forget it. “He was almost about to get hot,” Singleton says. “He knows he made a bad choice.”
But while Howard made a living on the sidelines—stealing a scene here and there in Ray, Lackawanna Blues, and Big Momma’s House—Singleton kept his lost star’s potential in mind. And in 2003, his team drafted Howard to play yet another pimp: the lead character in Hustle & Flow (July 13), a cheap and gritty movie about a Memphis hustler determined to become a rapper. With a smoke-seasoned drawl and a battle-scarred baby face, Howard gives the pimp archetype lightness and depth. He’s funny, but he’s not winking. Yet without a big hip-hop name in the lead, and with first-time director Craig Brewer at the helm, Singleton couldn’t get a studio to bite. He wound up fronting the money himself.
In classic Cinderella-Sundance fashion, the gamble paid off. Howard’s hard-edged performance skyrocketed Hustle & Flow to an audience award at the festival. A frenzied overnight bidding war erupted, and by dawn there was a record-breaking $9 million distribution deal with Paramount—plus $7 million more for another two Singleton productions.
Howard, Sundance’s newest golden boy, finally got his break; he’s already all over this season’s movies, from Crash to the Singleton-directed Four Brothers. And he’s fielding starring offers left and right—meeting with Spike Lee to talk about playing another boxer, Joe Louis. Singleton attributes the actor’s success to the fact that “he’s like James Dean was—malleable, organic.” Thandie Newton, who’s in Crash with Howard, has a different archetype in mind. “He’s like Gérard Depardieu,” she says. “Another strong, physical man who can break your heart with sensitivity. He has this creepiness, but a sympathetic attractiveness, too.”