Doin’ the Hustle

How did white guy Craig Brewer make the best black film in years?

HUSTLE & FLOW written and directed by Craig Brewer, with Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, DJ Qualls, Ludacris and Isaac Hayes. 114 minutes. A Paramount Classics release. Opens Friday (July 22). Rating: NNNNN

Park City, Utah – The fact that Craig Brewer is a white dude doesn’t seem to faze him one bit. He rolls into the Marriott courtyard at Sundance like it’s his living room. No wigga attitude, no wannabe angst, no guilt. You’d expect a little something, because Brewer has just launched the best black movie in years.

Not only did Hustle & Flow win the Sundance festival’s audience award for best drama, but Brewer’s just signed a $16-million three-picture deal with Paramount. Today he’s affable, focused and a newly minted millionaire. And Hustle & Flow is smoking hot.

“But let’s be honest,” Brewer says. “We’re in this stereotype tree and we’re falling out and hitting every branch. We got the pimp, we got the white girl, we got the rap music.”

The premise is simple to the point of cliché: pimp turns rapper. But Brewer and producer John Singleton build real muscle and sinew on that idea. There are no Oprah miracles in this movie, and no reckless bling. If pimpin’ ain’t easy, neither is flow.

“That energy of watching nobodies turn into somebodies is infectious,” Brewer allows, but he always insisted his story made room for self-doubt, blue notes and the possibility that ambition might not be enough.

“It takes more than just talking,” he says. “You have to allow yourself to fall down, you have to allow people into your life to collaborate with you, you have to allow yourself to look weak in front of other people.

“So you have this pimp who’d never allow his girls to see him stumble, and he starts to stumble in front of them. He’s trying to get some flow out and it’s not working. Ultimately, they come to help. It’s the same thing Adrian did in Rocky.”

Rocky? It sounds like exactly the comparison to damn his movie, but Brewer is a defender.

“I really love the original Rocky,” he confesses, “and I can always tell when people haven’t seen it, because they think Rocky wins at the end.”

That’s more like it. And it’s true that the original Rocky, before anybody knew what Stallone would turn into, has become the ultimate narrative of up-from-nothing. It’s for that same quality that Brewer cast Terrence Dashon Howard, a character actor best known up to now as the guy who let his wife get molested in Crash.

“When I saw Terrence, I saw DJay,” Brewer says. “I saw a guy who had a lot to prove. I saw a guy who was frustrated with where he was. He gives his all to every performance yet he’s been kept in these supporting roles. I knew that if we gave him this shot, if we stuck to our guns and let him be our lead, he would fight with everything he had – and he did.”

Howard’s ability to hit frustration, vulnerability and player charm – sometimes in the same scene – makes the film. He’s a pimp, but a pimp who can’t afford air conditioning. Brewer knows this kind of man, he says, black or white.

“I live in the South,” he reminds me. “I’m not going to not do subject matter or not represent people who are all over my backyard just because I’m white. The reality is we have a tradition in Memphis of black folks and white folks coming together to make music.”

In Hustle & Flow that plays out literally, with Howard’s rapper character supported by a producer from the gospel scene (Anthony Anderson) and a geeky keyboard man who refills vending machines for a living (DJ Qualls). The geek factor is important, Brewer says. As far as he’s concerned, the culture depends on “crazy nerds like me who read the liner notes on Hot Buttered Soul, who know the first songs that Howlin’ Wolf recorded at Sun Studios.

“I understand the caution,” he concludes about the race question, “but I find it a little bit played. You can’t put a patent on people.”

And although Hustle & Flow is sure to be aimed at kids shuffling crunk on their iPods, Brewer has a wider audience in mind.

“I remember when I really wanted to see Purple Rain,” he recalls, “but my dad had to buy my ticket. He came with me and it was our experience. He got to love it, I got to love it. So I’m hoping that young people can bring their parents who may not get rap music. They can see how much passion goes into creating these tracks.”

HUSTLE & FLOW (Craig Brewer) Rating: NNNNN

Terrence Dashon Howard stars in a brilliant breakout performance as a small-time Memphis pimp facing an early mid-life crisis. His decision to try to make it as a rapper gives the movie its crunkified Cinderella Man charge.

There are scenes in this movie that will get audiences cheering, but Craig Brewer and producer John Singleton keep their story street-level. Instead of charting the path to fame and riches, Hustle & Flow shows just what hard, humiliating labour hustling can be and how small victories can change lives. The supporting performances are all outstanding.

One of the best films of the year.

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