The time: Aug. 7, 2000. The setting: a Los Angeles hotel room strewn with the debris of an ongoing celebration. "The Poor & Hungry," a $20,000 movie shot in Memphis, has just won the Hollywood film festival's award for best digital feature, and its writer and director Craig Brewer has suddenly become the nobody everybody's talking about. Buzzed on a variety of cocktails and pure adrenaline, the man of the hour sits on his rumpled bed sipping a beer.
"I'm just glad that we won," Brewer says with all the focus of a man who's taken a swift kick in the teeth. "I'm just glad that it's over." Friends eye his golden trophy, resting on the bedside table, and burst into gales of drunken laughter. Brewer laughs too, because, as they like to say in movie trailers, "the real adventure has only just begun."
Flash forward to July 6, 2005. Brewer sips a drink on the rooftop of the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis. His second film, the John Singleton-backed "Hustle & Flow"—which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and sold to Paramount Classics/MTV for a record-breaking $16 million—has just received its red-carpet premiere at the Muvico multiplex in Peabody Place. It's way too late, and the 33-year-old writer/director is having a friendly squabble with his producer Stephanie Allain. On top of an already overstuffed schedule, Brewer, who looks like the walking wounded, has to make a photo shoot the next day for Memphis magazine.
He's desperately trying to negotiate some down time in the coming week, and Allain isn't budging an inch. Their next project, "Black Snake Moan," starring Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Timberlake, starts shooting in September, and there's plenty of work to be done in the meantime. Allain and Brewer have recently formed a studio-supported development company called Southern Cross the Dog, with offices in Memphis and L.A. Their long-term goals are ambitious and perhaps a little risky, and as they like to say in the movie trailers, "Sex, celebrity, and political intrigue" threaten to turn Brewer's dream of making movies in Memphis into a "nightmare of epic proportions."
Or at least a pain in the ass.
Pimpin' His Pimp Script
Brewer sits in an air-conditioned office in the otherwise un-air-conditioned upstairs of his Midtown home talking about future projects. When the phone rings, he checks the caller I.D. and answers.
"What's up?" he says to Terrence Howard, who plays DJay, "Hustle & Flow"'s small-dolla pimp with the big-dolla dreams. He congratulates Howard on a slate of recent interviews and gives him mad props for wearing his newfound celebrity so well.
"Look, there's something we both know," Brewer says conspiratorially. "Nothing is normal for either one of us anymore. It's all crazy." As he ends the conversation, his eyes roll with a mixture of delight and disbelief.
"Last night, Jodi (Brewer's wife), and I had a long conversation about how we can stay here and make this work," he says. "We love Memphis. We may not join the Rotary Club any time soon, but we love this city. And it may sound corny to say it, but we love telling people outside of Memphis how much we love Memphis."
Brewer wants to stay in Midtown. He wants to make his art there because the music inspires him, and the landscape triggers his imagination. He also likes the simple pleasures: clocking out at the end of the day, grabbing a six-pack, and going home to his wife and kid. But young directors staring down their first commercial release don't often get a celebrity rollout. Brewer has gotten just that, and he wonders if anything can ever be normal again.
"Studio execs have seen me in their offices for four years," he says. "Now that 'Hustle & Flow' is whatever it is, they're all calling me back and they're saying, 'Hey, you know, we've always wanted to work with you. You know we've always been very supportive of 'Hustle & Flow''."
"Let me tell you how I define supportive," Brewer says. "Supportive means how about writing me a check.'"
Raw and Present Heat
Brewer's tone isn't bitter. He's staggered by all the new hotness that's come his way and also the new temptations. In spite of the clear and present heat, he remains convinced that the success of "Hustle & Flow" will only make it that much harder to make the films he wants to make.
Since his Sundance fame, Brewer has passed on the opportunity to direct some big movies in order to continue making his films in and around Memphis.
"I've had people tell me, Whatever project you want to do, we'll give it to you," he says. "But then they ask, Are you sure you want to make 'Black Snake Moan?'"
At the same time Brewer was calling his "pimps and ho's" to join him on-stage at the Sundance awards banquet, his just-finished script for "Black Snake Moan"—a Southern gothic saga about an old black Christian man who thinks he can chase the devil out of a young white nymphomaniac—was being leaked to industry insiders. It was, according to Brewer, prime reading material on many flights out of Park City, Utah.
"It flew through Hollywood," he says. "And everybody said, 'Wow, this is really good stuff.' But the story is (sexually) raw ... and people said, 'We like it, but we've got some of the exact same problems (with 'Black Snake') that we had with 'Hustle & Flow.''" Brewer extends his arms in a helpless shrug.
"I told them that I have to trust my gut," he says. "That's what got me here in the first place."
If it bothers Brewer that some people think his subject matter is too raw, he doesn't let on. Perhaps it's because he has other, more personal battles to fight.
"If I want to keep making movies in Memphis, the biggest obstacles I have to overcome are two other states: Georgia and Louisiana," Brewer says. "Hollywood—and when I say Hollywood, I mean the people who are giving you the money to make your movies—is very particular (about the bottom line). Louisiana offers great tax breaks for films, and Georgia offers all of these incredible tax incentives (that Tennessee doesn't provide). That's the big battle for (me) next year, because if we don't do something, and soon, there will never be another Southern film shot in Tennessee. They will always go to Georgia or Louisiana." Brewer says he doesn't want to get too close to politics. But he wants to see Tennessee get competitive, and quickly.
"We have to get really organized and do our research, because no state wants to give tax incentives for anything. We need to show (Tennessee lawmakers) what (creating tax incentives for filmmakers) would do for the local economy and also what it can do for the state in general. This is something that has to be done.
"I don't want to work outside of Memphis, and I shouldn't have to," Brewer says. "I've seen how they work in Los Angeles. I've seen how they make movies there, and I'm telling you, we don't need much to have something like that right here."
An 'Indie Blockbuster'
"'Hustle & Flow' sold for a lot of money, and everybody in Hollywood knows what a big sale means," Brewer says, explaining his film's huge media campaign. "It means you've got to spend at least that much selling the movie to the public. Paramount Classics has never had (an advertising campaign) as aggressive as what they've put together for 'Hustle.' ... And now (because of the hype), there's this new term some people are using to describe (my film). They're calling it an 'indie blockbuster.'"
Brewer thinks the blockbuster-pejorative coined in a Slate.com article titled "The Pimp Who Saved Hollywood" establishes a false context that degrades his product and diminishes his craft. He's not upset, but he doesn't like it.
"Look," he says. "This is a $3-million independent film, and it should be seen as an independent film. Studios test films so they can figure out how to sell them better. If you wanted to get into the first screening, you had to be over 25, and you had to have already seen six of 10 movies: 'Garden State,' 'Finding Neverland,' 'Sideways,' 'Napoleon Dynamite', and I can't remember the rest. Needless to say, this wasn't your 'Boyz N the Hood' crowd. Everybody (at Paramount) was nervous about where we would stand with this particular audience. They thought this audience would be afraid of a film like 'Hustle & Flow'."
"The audience is given comment cards to fill out after the show," Brewer explains. "They can check poor, fair, so-so, good, very good, or excellent. If over 55 percent of the audience selects very good or excellent, then you can breathe easy, because you've won. 'Hustle & Flow' scored 87 percent."
A week after the first test screening, "Hustle & Flow" was tested with a more Afro-centric crowd, weighted toward men who said they were planning to see the film. It scored a 77 percent.
"These numbers sucker-punched the studio," Brewer says. "It made them think, 'Hey, maybe we can sell this film to everybody.'"
Gotta Have a Dream
Brewer sits at his computer raving about local musicians, particularly bluesman Robert Belfour. He shuffles through MP3s by several regional artists and talks about his plans to use these songs in "Black Snake Moan."
"I want a cable series like 'The Sopranos' shot here," Brewer says. "I want to call it 'Bluff City' and set it in the middle of the Midtown music scene. There's incredible drama in the lives of all these people who go work their day jobs then come home and go to work creating all of this incredible music.
"I'm going to need writers who can be compelling, but who know that real estate on the screen is sacred," Brewer says. "I think there are definitely people here (in and around Memphis) who can write for television. And if it means that I get to put everybody to work, then I want to be the guy who puts everybody to work. But I'm also going to have to be a little Three 6 Mafia and a little Sam Phillips. I'm going to have to do some hiring and some firing. But I think the talent is ready for this level of work.
"Think about this," Brewer says, peering into a possible near future: "What if ('Hustle & Flow') ends up like 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'—something that enters the zeitgeist or whatever. That 'Big Fat' movie got nominated for Oscars, you know? Now (Memphis rapper) Al Kapone could conceivably be nominated for an Oscar for 'It Ain't Over.'"
"Success always helps, but nothing has shown me that things ever get easier," he says. "In fact they only get harder, because when you're successful you get bumped up into the adult pool. But all of this can happen."
Brewer says he'll be looking for a residence in Los Angeles soon because there's just no
avoiding it. Likewise, he says his partner, Allain, will be settling into a second home in Memphis. He can't discuss the future without also talking about his Memphis muse, the abundance of untapped musical talent that grows like kudzu out of the Delta mud. Brewer says he might start a record label with Scott Bomar, the bass player who hooked up his band, the Bo-Keys, and recorded the score for "Hustle & Flow." Brewer imagines his Bluff City as a place that attracts more talent than it expels, where artists are employed as artists, and Southern culture is bottled pure at the source and turned into a marketable commodity.
Early Mid-Life Crisis
"Hustle & Flow" begins with DJay contemplating his mortality and envying the blessed ignorance of a stray dog. Like his fictional pimp, Brewer's mid-life crisis came early. Shaken by his father's untimely death, he was forced to reconsider the meaning of "mid-life." He emerged from a cocoon of youthful slack determined to make his own unique and lasting mark as a filmmaker.
"I've had to come to grips with the fact that "The Poor & Hungry" (about a car thief falling in love with a cello player) is really about me and Jodi—about how a wonderful woman could ever love this chubby guy with maybe some weird, dark secrets. 'Hustle & Flow' is about me and Jodi, and 'Black Snake Moan' is about me and Jodi," he says. "I'm not saying there's a male character that's me or a female character that's her, but this is somehow an exploration of us and our relationship." He talks about his biggest inspirations: giant King Lear-like family squabbles that always seemed to happen on joyous occasions like picnics and fish fries, while children played and fireflies lit up the night. And he talks about Memphis, the city he loves so dearly.
"It's going to turn into tough love," Brewer says, "because Memphis is a place where it's easy to get by. And it's a little lazy." He marvels at how easy it is to predict the public response to new ideas like an NBA team, or a work of public art. "It's always a strange combination of, 'Not with my money,' and 'That's never worked here before'."
"Just listen to this," Brewer says, playing a selection from the "Hustle & Flow" soundtrack, and turning up the volume to highlight a snatch of Al Kapone's lyrics:
This is my life and it's a battle within,
I've got to survive even if I'm sinning to win,
If I show no remorse I'll reap
the devil's reward,
He said he'd give me riches but
I'm looking for more.
The song, with its echoes of Charlie Patton and Howlin' Wolf, holds a special meaning for Brewer, who is certainly standing at Robert Johnson's fabled crossroads. As the last beat fades away, he selects a hard one-chord North Mississippi blues song he's considering for use in "Black Snake Moan."
"You've got to think about this," he says, cranking the cranked-up volume even higher. "Al Kapone could win an Oscar. Suddenly, all of these things that haven't been possible before are well within the zone of possibility."
Chris Davis is the music editor of the Memphis Flyer and Chris Herrington is a staff writer.
On The Flow, On The Flow
by Chris Herrington
"Look, we didn't make 'The Killing of a Chinese Bookie'," Craig Brewer told The Village Voice a couple of weeks ago, responding to critics who have deemed "Hustle & Flow" too commercial.
But when I spoke to Brewer at least a year before "Hustle & Flow" began shooting, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"—indie pioneer John Cassavetes' raw '70s tale of a small-time strip club proprietor—was exactly the film he was referencing to explain his next project. Those who have deemed "Hustle & Flow" too crass, too eager to please, seem to be having a hard time separating Brewer's film from its Sundance Film Festival audience-award-winning launching pad. Beyond the essential silliness of Sundance's alleged sanctity, imagine if "Hustle & Flow" had been a studio product from day one, as it would have been if studios hadn't (stupidly) passed on it? If that were the case, and especially if the film was marketed as an urban "B" movie like Ice Cube's "Player's Club," the same critics would probably see the film's clear artistry as a breath of fresh air.
Because what's best about "Hustle & Flow," which follows subsistence-level Memphis hustler/pimp DJay (Terrence Howard) through an early mid-life crisis, is precisely how it unites seemingly opposed film worlds: It's an art film with commercial instincts and a commercial film
with art-movie texture.
Brewer's protestations aside, "Hustle" has an awful lot in common with "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." The films share essentially good-hearted protagonists who are small-time sex-trade operators, both are rooted in the rhythms of unconventional makeshift families, have tremendous feels for their low-rent locales, and climax with bursts of violence rooted in desperation.
But "Hustle & Flow" also boasts the broad comedy and raunchy directness of a "Player's Club" and the hero's quest story arc, energetic music, and ostensible feel-good ending of the "Rocky"/"Footloose"/"Flashdance" crowd-pleasers Brewer now likes to cite as inspiration.
This notion—call it compromise if you want—is built into the very title of the movie. "Hustle & Flow" could well translate as "Commerce & Art." In DJay's world, as in that of the writer/director who identifies with him so intensely, these things are inseparable. One makes the other possible. This negotiation is what the movie embodies and what it is about. DJay wants to express himself, but he also want to be on the radio and out of the 'hood.
In a period when you can't flip through a magazine or surf the Web without coming across a lament (usually justified) about how unsatisfying American movies are, "Hustle & Flow" should be a cause for hope, not despair. The corporate synergy of the film's blockbuster-style marketing might be disturbing, but the movie itself is a reminder that art and commerce are not inherently opposed.
Like so many of those classic Hollywood movies, and like Brewer's locally beloved debut "The Poor & Hungry," the primary pleasures of "Hustle & Flow" are derived not from its narrative, which is as familiar and conventional as critics claim, but from its details. In "Hustle & Flow," this starts with Howard's charismatic, star-making turn and extends to the film's expertly detailed mise-en-scene, Scott Bomar's evocative score, and creation-myth music scenes so well paced and acted that they sweep the audience up in the process.
But even those not-at-all-incidental riches aside, "Hustle & Flow" isn't as simple as its detractors—or maybe even its creators—suggest. The film may perceive itself as resolving the potential tension between commerce and art, hustle and flow—the film's own production notes, which calls it "the redemptive story of a streetwise Memphis hustler trying to find his voice and realize his long-buried dreams," suggest this—but it's just as easy to read the film as ending on a less celebratory note.
After all, Brewer may identify with DJay, but in the form of DJay's idol/rival Skinny Black, he's provided a character that embodies an alternate future. Or maybe not so alternate: "Everybody gotta have a dream" is the film's tagline, which is spoken twice in the film, first by Skinny Black and then by DJay, and both times the sentiment seems less than sincere. Hustling ain't easy, or even ennobling, the more subtle message suggests, but everybody's gotta do it.
From Free Sol: "Over the past several days, we have experienced a barrage of phone calls and emails regarding a certain bathroom scene in the Memphis-based summer blockbuster, Hustle & Flow. Well, in case you've seen it but were unsure, YES...that is FREE S?L who gives a quick "whassup" to DJay (Terrence Howard) while drying his hands in the bathroom of "Arnel's Bar"! Yeah we know he was only in it for a few seconds, but hey, it's all good!! We're still hype about our boy being on the silver-screen!!! Plus, we know it's gonna get greater later, so we're just thankful for the exposure he's getting. So for all of you who haven't done so, please make sure you go see the movie so you can give Free a shout out when he flashes by! ;-) It is definitely worth checking out...and yes, I would recommend it even if our boy wasn't in the movie!! "
This is a good movie. Please go (to the theater) and support this film. It didnít even make the top ten for box office revenue in its second week.