Hustling pays off

Craig BREWER was just another struggling young filmmaker, scouting locations in a scruffy Memphis neighborhood for a low-budget movie he was trying to get off the ground, when he bumped into a chatty pimp outside a cheap, hooker-friendly hotel. "He was a black guy in a black Cadillac with a white girl in the back and he was selling this girl to me like his life depended on it," Brewer recalls. "When he figured out I wasn't interested, he said, 'Well, what about my car? You wanna buy that?' "

The pimp didn't make a sale, but the encounter started Brewer thinking -- what if I was that guy? After all, when it comes to hustling, pimps have nothing on a lot of brash young filmmakers. When Paramount refused to approve Francis Coppola's choice of Marlon Brando to star in "The Godfather," the young director faked an epileptic fit in the studio chief's office until he relented. Seeing an echo of his own ambitions in his street encounter, Brewer wrote "Hustle & Flow," the striking story of a Memphis pimp who believes he has something mysterious inside him that could be transformed into art -- in this case, the art of a swaggering hip-hop song. The film debuts Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Though he grew up in California, Brewer, 33, views himself as a son of the South. He spent his childhood summers in Memphis with his grandparents and has lived there for the past decade. When we sat down to talk recently, I couldn't help but ask Brewer if "Hustle & Flow," which focuses on the healing power of art, wasn't as much about him as that pimp. "Absolutely," he said, nodding his head furiously. "It's me. It's about being a man who doesn't want to be all talk anymore, but who wants to go for it. If I fall on my [butt], at least I'll know I gave it my best shot."

It's only fitting that a film about someone's improbable ambitions would end up at Sundance, the land of long-shot cinematic hopes and dreams. "Hustle & Flow" is at the top of most studio acquisition executives' list of must-see films at the festival. That's quite a turnabout, considering that the film types now so eager to see the movie are the same ones who passed on the project when it was just another promising script floating around town.

While today's young moviegoers are largely colorblind about all sorts of cultural issues, film executives, even the ones who run the more daring studio specialty divisions, remain cautiously conservative when it comes to racial attitudes. When Brewer first took his project to the studios, everyone heaped praise on the script, but backed away from any commitments, especially when they discovered that the person who'd penned such a deeply personal story about the inner life of a black pimp was -- gasp -- white!

"Obviously they had questions about a white boy from the South doing this movie and I can see their point," Brewer explained over an L.A. lunch, wearing a T-shirt touting the Bo-Keys, a Memphis funk band that teams Stax Records veterans with younger musicians. "No one would've cared what color I was if I'd been doing a dumb urban crime movie where everyone's toting a 9-millimeter. But when you're doing a movie with real heart and soul, then they'd ask, 'How can you make a personal story with an African American in the lead?' "

Some execs asked if they could buy the script and put a black director on the project. Others simply passed, saying they didn't want to make a film with a pimp, which they considered a negative stereotype. (Apparently that squeamishness doesn't extend to the multitude of movies that cast actresses as prostitutes.) Brewer was repeatedly asked if he could turn the pimp character into a mailman or a plumber. After "Barbershop" became a hit, one executive asked, "Could you make the pimp funnier so we could sell it as a comedy?"

"It was the thing that probably broke my heart the most about Hollywood," says Brewer. "I live in Memphis, which is still viewed as a racist place, but here's Hollywood, this place that's supposed to be the center of tolerant liberalism, and it's still trapped in all the old fears and racial thinking. If you have a movie like mine, where the cast is 70% black and you have a pimp who wants to make rap music, you get put in this 'urban' category, even though 'urban' can mean everything from 'Eve's Bayou' to 'Soul Plane.' "

After Brewer wrote the script in 2000, his manager, Brad Gross, took it everywhere. He got some interest at Universal, then at Fox Searchlight, thanks to Joe Pichirallo, then a senior executive there. But Searchlight also had problems with the subject matter and passed. Gross then got the script to producer Stephanie Allain, a former Columbia Pictures executive who discovered John Singleton and made his influential debut, "Boyz N the Hood." "The script was so good that I called Brad when I was only halfway through," she recalls. "He said, 'Don't you want to finish it?' And I said, 'No, I love it already.' And I loved it even more when I finished."

Allain eventually got it set up at USA Films, which was sold and became Focus Films. Focus loved the script, but it eventually put the project in turnaround too. Unwilling to give up, Allain sent the script to Singleton, who fell in love with the story. Having just directed Universal Pictures' "2 Fast 2 Furious," which grossed more than $300 million in box-office and DVD sales, Singleton thought it would be easy getting the film financed by attaching himself as a producer.

"I was so cavalier," Singleton recalls. "I told Craig, 'Don't worry, I promise you this will get made now.' " Instead, he got no for an answer, even at Universal. Determined to prove the suits wrong, Singleton agreed to finance the film out of his own pocket. He won't say how much he put up, but it's likely that he spent close to $3 million backing the picture, which Brewer shot in 22 days in Memphis last summer. Singleton was also an invaluable help in casting the film. Brewer and Allain already had a commitment from Terrence Howard ("The Best Man") to play the lead character, but Singleton brought in Ludacris, the hip-hop star who was in "2 Fast 2 Furious," to play a key role as the film's cocky rap hitmaker.

The raw music that resounds in "Hustle & Flow" is the sound of what the hip-hop world calls the Dirty South, home to rappers like Ludacris, Lil Jon, Three 6 Mafia and David Banner. It's also the music that bonded Brewer with Singleton. The filmmakers have such similar tastes that they would sometimes show up on the set wearing the same T-shirt. "It's one reason why the studio executives who hold the purse strings didn't get this film," says Singleton. "They grew up in the rock era, not the rap era. Craig is a filmmaker with a contemporary Southern consciousness, which has nothing to do with segregation or civil rights. In his movies, rednecks mingle with the brothers with gold teeth. It's the real America, which people already know, but have never seen on film."

As a Southerner who grew up in an era when race cast a dark spell on every big issue of the day, I found it refreshing to discover a young filmmaker free from the burden of telling a Southern story in which everything is seen in a racial light. "Hustle & Flow" has none of the patronizing stereotypes that abound in Hollywood films about the South, which generally paint the region as a hotbed of gum-cracking crackers, impossibly noble Negroes and insufferable do-gooders, nearly all played by actors with bad Southern accents.

As Brewer points out, the film is about a lot of things, starting with class, community and poverty -- but race isn't even a factor. "Trust me," he says with a grin. "We don't even mention Elvis once."

When it comes to music, Brewer has the air of someone who grew up in a record shop -- if he played guitar, he'd be Ben Harper, just as at home with blues and gospel as funk and hip-hop beats.

True to his love of musical history, Brewer gave a part in the film to Isaac Hayes, brought in original Stax musicians to play on the score and dedicated the film to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. "He was the first guy, sometimes at his peril, to look beyond race," says Brewer. "When he first saw Howlin' Wolf, this gruff, poor farmer from the Delta, he knew he was a great musician. Whether you were Ike Turner and B.B. King or Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, Sam said, 'I don't care what color you are, if you play real raw music, I want to hear it.' And that captures the spirit of this movie. It's about making music by any means necessary."

"Hustle & Flow" has the rough-edged spirit of a movie made by any means necessary. "In a lot of ways, doing it ourselves was a blessing," says Allain. "If you take people's money, then you have to listen to their ideas about everything. But if you do it on your own, you just do what's right for the movie."

Singleton feels equally empowered by the movie's DIY spirit: "I feel like Roger Corman or John Sayles, creating something entirely outside the system. Everybody who turned us down is calling now, wanting to be our new best friend."

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