POSITION Aspiring rapper DJay in Hustle & Flow; conflicted Cameron in Crash; Lt. Green in Four Brothers
SEASON HIGHLIGHTS In this summer's critical hit Hustle, a do-rag-wearing, bottom-feeding pimp named DJay, played by Howard, is moved to tears by a gospel hymn. He soon recognizes hip-hop as his calling, penning such tunes as ''Whoop That Trick.'' As preposterous as this transformation could have been in the hands of a lesser actor or, God forbid, a rapper-turned-actor Howard makes you want to sing along.
For Howard, every character is an attempt to plumb depths, push aside skeletons, and salvage tokens of humanity. ''Each one of these bad people is not bad on their own,'' says Howard of roles like DJay and Quentin, the slimy lothario he imbued with verve in 1999's The Best Man. ''Society has failed them and I will not judge them. I am going to give them all the voice that I possibly can and the light that I can, and hopefully, if I fall into a dark place, maybe somebody might shine a little light on me.''
It seems dark places are where Howard is at his most brilliant, as in Paul Haggis' indie breakout Crash, playing an affluent TV director humiliated by a racist policeman. Just as in Hustle, he visibly fills up with frustration, the water level rising in his fragile eyes like a pot boiling over, but here he succumbs to the crushing reality of his situation.
From hopeful hustlers to beaten buppies, Howard has portrayed many a soul in turmoil. And he can be as incendiary off screen as on, resulting in his rep as a bit of a hothead. ''I'm not in support of gratuitous violence,'' he says of Four Brothers, the revenge-driven flick in which he has a supporting role. ''It may be entertaining, but it's not nutritious. It's like being invited to dinner to feast upon a whole table of Twinkies.'' He said he wouldn't judge people. Movies are fair game.