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Hustling pays off

Rejected by Hollywood, 'Hustle & Flow' becomes Sundance's must-see film.

January 18, 2005|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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.' "

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