Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" is the story of a small-time Memphis pimp who finds his creative voice through music. And it's also the...

Share story

Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” is the story of a small-time Memphis pimp who finds his creative voice through music. And it’s also the story of Brewer’s finding his own voice, through a little film that, by his own admission, nobody saw.

Brewer and his wife, Jodi, made “The Poor & Hungry” in 2000, with $20,000 in inheritance money. “My father died at 49, rather unexpectedly,” he said, in Seattle for a recent visit. “My mom came to me with 20 grand. She said, ‘You should make that movie your dad was talking about.’ So my wife and I started making the movie, building sets in our living room, having to quiet down the neighbors, because we were filming and their air conditioners would be on.”

“Hustle & Flow,” which has scenes that mirror the experience Brewer describes (DJay, the main character, sets up a low-rent recording studio in his house), is that story, turned into fiction. Brewer, a longtime Memphis resident, remembers visiting local rappers in the course of making his film. “I saw that they were kind of making their music the same way I was making my movie, makeshift recording studios in their kitchens, and I felt a connection to that.

“They’re not making any money; they’re just having to hustle, beg, borrow and steal to make something that nobody is asking them to make. So I thought that was an interesting story to tell. That’s what ‘Hustle & Flow’ is about, the collaboration and the sparks that come from that kind of effort to make something creative.”

“The Poor & Hungry” was eventually picked up by the Independent Film Channel. But Brewer quickly moved on to write “Hustle & Flow” — and then spent years trying to get the film made. With producer Stephanie Allain, he made the rounds of the studios but was rejected everywhere. “They wanted the lead to be a rapper,” Brewer remembered. “I just felt that wasn’t what the movie was about. It was about nobodies trying to be somebodies.”

Eventually, the film found its angel: John Singleton, director of “Boyz N the Hood.” Allain, who had previously worked with Singleton, sent him the “Hustle & Flow” screenplay, just as Singleton was enjoying success from “2 Fast 2 Furious.” He immediately signed on as producer, greenlighting the film himself — and putting his own house up as collateral.

“Hustle & Flow” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won much acclaim (it received the festival’s audience award) and was eventually picked up by Paramount Classics, in a $16 million three-movie deal — completed, Brewer said, at 5 in the morning. Brewer has already begun his next project, “Black Snake Moan,” starring Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson.

So the days of making films in his living room are over, but Brewer hasn’t gone Hollywood. He still lives in Memphis (where “Black Snake Moan” will be shot) — and, when he politely answers a cellphone call during the interview, it’s not some Tinseltown exec or agent on the phone, but his mom. And he’s happy to describe “Hustle & Flow” as a movie for audiences — an almost old-fashioned story of an anti-hero following a dream.

“People say ‘crowd pleaser’ as if that’s some kind of bad thing,” he said. “I miss that community feeling that we used to have in movie theaters — everyone laughed together and everyone kind of was quiet and tense over a moment, inspired by music. There’s so many articles written, about ‘Where did the audience go?’ But you walk along the aisles at Blockbuster, everything kind of looks the same. I just want to see some different stuff. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen 1,000 Mormons walking out of a Salt Lake City screening singing [as he croons the “Hustle & Flow” theme song], “It’s hard out here for a pimp.”

Moira Macdonald: