The time: August 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 (on the cusp of being way too early), 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.
It's All Crazy Now
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 here 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.
Hustle & Flow ends with Howard's character DJay being released from jail. His homemade song, "Whoop Dat Trick," has become a regional hit, and two star-struck prison guards slip their former charge a demo tape, begging him to take a quick listen.
"Everybody's got to have a dream," DJay says as he walks off into an ambiguous sunset. This closing scene certainly represents a rebirth for the pimp-turned rapper, but it's hardly a feel-good ending. Triumph and redemption hinge on one elegantly unanswered question: Will DJay keep it real? Will he take his success back to the hood or pack up and leave town like his tangential homeboy and fallen hero Skinny Black - the man who offered DJay hope before tossing his tape into the toilet and pissing all over his dreams. Brewer, who slipped his own demo tape, The Poor & Hungry, into a lot of important hands while pimpin' his pimp script in Hollywood, now faces a similar dilemma.
"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.'"
His 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 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."
The Pimp Who Saved Hollywood?
"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 [of Hustle & Flow] 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.'"
Everybody's 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 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 [in Memphis] 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.
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."
By Chris Herrington
From the Al Kapone and Three 6 Mafia raps that protagonist DJay performs to a locally produced score that evokes the hey-day of Stax and Hi to a string of Memphis music cameos, Hustle & Flow is a movie rich with Memphis music. But according to director Craig Brewer, making it so wasn't easy.
"I always knew I was going to have local rappers write the raps, but, for a long time, that was the struggle," Brewer says. "Not just to film in Memphis, but to have the music come from here too. Because no one's had a track record in the film business, I had to convince a lot of people to basically audition for a movie I was begging them to be in."
Three 6 Mafia, who had worked with producer John Singleton on an earlier film, were a given when it came to helping craft the sound of the film's aspiring rapper, but the platinum-selling local rap titans ended up penning only two of DJay's four on-screen songs - "Pop It For Some Paper" and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" - after Memphis rap pioneer Al Kapone floored Brewer and Singleton with an impromptu audition, landing the job of penning the film's theme song, "Hustle & Flow (It Ain't Over)," and getting a pre-existing song, "Whoop That Trick," slotted as DJay's first recorded track.
"I've always believed the movie belongs to those who love this kind of music," Brewer says, "but it's designed to educate people who won't even give it a chance."
Winning over outsiders and doubters required a slight stylistic shift in some of the film's music, with written-to-order songs "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" and, especially, "Hustle & Flow (It Ain't Over)" boasting a righteous, striving, underdog quality perhaps not often found in a genre now based more on celebration and menace.
"I don't think [supporting character] Shug should be singing [Gangsta Boo's] 'Where Dem Dollas At.' I don't think DJay needs to be doing [Three 6 Mafia's] 'Ridin' Spinners,'" Brewer acknowledges. "I could have gone in for that harder, gangsta tone. But I'm finding that the movie, for people outside of our city, is pretty overwhelming as is. I needed the movie to be accessible musically."
To hear the Memphis sound raw and uncut, pay close attention to the soundtrack, which, in addition to DJay's Memphis-produced tracks and local duo 8Ball & MJG's "Tell Me Why," features a couple of independent local artists: Kapone's "Get Crunk, Get Buck" serves as the soundtrack to a chaotic scene at the Crystal Palace skating rink, while Nasty Nardo's "Let's Get a Room" is banging in the background at the King of Clubs strip club, which also happens to be where Brewer first heard the song.
"I went into King of Clubs one night with Amy Vincent, my director of photography, to show her what the club looked like. And I had really been feeling the song 'Click On 'Em' on the radio, but I never caught who it was. Well, I'm at the club with Amy and 'Click On 'Em' comes on, and I'm like, now I can ask somebody who sings this. And I go up to the DJ and he goes, 'Nasty Nardo, he's right behind you.'"
"It was like something out of a story book," Nardo remembers. "I'd just finished ['Let's Get a Room'] that day. [I played it for Brewer] that day and he told me he was going to put it in the movie. He didn't make any promises, but he told me he'd do whatever he could to get the song into the movie."
"I had to have that song," Brewer says. "So amongst all the soundtrack wranglings, John and I would not be moved. We will have Nasty Nardo's 'Let's Get a Room' and we will have Al Kapone's 'Get Crunk, Get Buck.' We loved those two tracks."
"The thing I love about Craig and John is that they had to fight to keep my song on the soundtrack," Nardo says. "There was talk about kicking my song out, me and Al Kapone both, because we weren't signed to any of the major labels involved with the soundtrack. There are three Memphis artists on the soundtrack, but there are only two unsigned, independent acts, and that's me and Al. They tried really hard to take us off, but my hat's off to Craig. He stuck to his guns. And I feel blessed by the opportunity."
For Nardo, who has been recording and performing for eight years and has released several local records on his on Geto Star label, the inclusion in Hustle & Flow has been a huge boon.
"I'm getting a lot of exposure," he says. "This is the first time I'm ever going to be exposed to this many people at one time. It's like free promotion for me." And even before the soundtrack was released, Nardo says, the sales of his most current album, Can't Stop Ballin' (which also includes "Let's Get a Room"), shot up considerably.
Despite the avalanche of attention the movie has gotten - including the half-hour MTV special My Block: The Hustle & Flow of Memphis - some might still question the relative dearth of Memphis artists on the soundtrack, where only six of 16 tracks are Memphis-connected. But Brewer doesn't see it that way.
"No, I'm actually elated," Brewer says about the number of Memphis artists on the soundtrack. "The way that John has been selling this is we're going after the Memphis sound, but there has never been a movie that represents the Southern sound to the rest of the world. We wanted it to be an anthem for Memphis, but also for the South. But what we love is that Memphis is the leader in this movie, which is so not what everybody was trying to get me to do. They said, man, go film in Atlanta."
Nardo says he'd like to see more local artists represented, but he understands why they aren't. "Even though this is a Memphis movie about Memphis music, this movie wasn't made to just be shown here in Memphis," Nardo says. "And the soundtrack wasn't made just to be sold here in Memphis. It was made to be a worldwide release. If you want to sell records, you have to include other big-name artists from around the country. There just aren't that many big-name artists in Memphis. But hopefully that's about to change."
The Review 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. Most prominently, a Slate.com diatribe by critic Christopher Kelly derisively titled "The Pimp Who Saved Hollywood."
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. In the wake of Hustle & Flow's swift rise to the center of American cinema, Brewer's rhetorical about-face seems to be more about combating a consistent, if still minority, strain of criticism than a reflection of a changed attitude about his film.
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. And at its best, Hustle & Flow is all these things at once.
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. In a sense, this negotiation is both 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 mainstream 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 a little disturbing (good for the film and therefore good for Memphis, but distressing nonetheless), but the movie itself is a needed reminder that art and commerce are not inherently opposed. Brewer's goals - to fill seats, provide entertainment, and make lasting art along the way - are actually a reminder of an older, better, mid-century Hollywood, when the narratives weren't always complex and the endings rarely sad but when great art/entertainment combos were still produced in abundance. The problem with contemporary Hollywood is not that filling the seats is the primary goal; it's that it is too often the only goal. And critics who have been pummeled by too many films that are all commerce and no art have been made perhaps too sensitive to things that general audiences are thought to appreciate a little too much. When Slate's Kelly dismisses Hustle & Flow as "shameless, crowd-pleasing drivel," what's troubling about the sentiment is the sense that "crowd-pleasing" and "drivel" are perceived as inseparable.
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 The Poor & Hungry, this meant the cup game, Cadillac prayers, and Lindsay Roberts' indelible performance. In Hustle & Flow, this starts with Howard's charismatic, star-making turn (it's early in what promises to be a long career, but Brewer's chief directorial attribute seems to be his wonderful work with actors) 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.