"We're dealing with a pimp," says writer-director Craig Brewer of his Mackin' movie Hustle & Flow. "So yes: There are going to be issues of misogyny. But make no mistake: This is a woman-get-behind-your-man movie. On the set, I kept a picture taped to the cover of my script that would remind me every day of what the movie was about: It was a picture of a beat-up, bloodied Rocky Balboa walking down a hallway, and Adrian holding his hand and looking up at his eyes. Every day I would tell Taraji Henson, who played [the pimp's pregnant ho], 'Look at this picture. Whatever you might think as a strong woman, this is a moment where [your character's] man is having a crisis: He's going through something huge.' For men, the support of a woman getting behind what they want to do is gold, you know?"
I do. The question here, though, is whether women will support the movie enough to turn the box office to gold. Paramount, which bought Brewer's upbeat blaxploitation remix for $9 million at Sundance, has so far worked the race-and-class side of the crossover bid--and worked it hard. In Minnesota, Hustle & Flow (which opens nationally on Friday) has been advance-screened more widely than any movie here in years: A half-dozen local word of mouth-builders in the past month have run the demographic gamut from a Twin Cities Black Film Festival promo at Block E 15 to a members' screening at Walker Art Center and a public sneak last weekend at Landmark's Edina Cinema, whose clientele is presumably the wealthiest and whitest film audience in the state.
In New York, to which the studio has summoned press members for its Hustle junket, Brewer is endearing himself to a strategically diverse array of reporters, one of whom tactfully asks the white director whether his color is worth discussing.
"I understand the curiosity in the question," says Brewer, seated between the film's African American producers Stephanie Allain and John Singleton, who financed the movie themselves. (Allain famously sold her house in L.A. to help pay Brewer's rent; Singleton later wrote a check for $3 million to cover the entire production.) "When I was banging on the doors in Hollywood, there was a lot of curiosity--and even more caution. I'll be the first to say that I think there needs to be caution. Because I learned a lot about the Hollywood system when I started trying to make Hustle & Flow. No one [in Hollywood] would have a problem with me doing the film if I just made it goofier, if I made it with a little more action. I was told in no uncertain terms by a couple of [studio execs] that in terms of movies with predominantly African American casts, there are set ways in which they know how to make them [profitable]. And they didn't want to deviate from those. I'm not shooting at 60 frames a second while [the pimp] is flying to the left with two shiny nines blazing, you know? That's what they said was okay for me to do."
"We had people at studios turn us down," Singleton says, "because, you know, Craig is white. I was like, 'This is bullshit.'"
"They were worried that if I were to tell a personal story," says the 33-year-old Brewer, a Memphis native, "then a major star wouldn't want to do it. And without a star, I'm not really allowed as a white guy to tell a personal story through that '70s [blaxploitation] iconography of the hustler character who's on his last leg. That's like falling out of the stereotype tree and hitting every branch on the way down: He's a black pimp, he's got a white hooker, and he's trying to make rap music. I can understand the concern. But that doesn't change the fact that I know black pimps and they have white hookers and they're all trying to do rap music. [Executives] didn't want to make a movie where you identified with [the pimp character]. They wanted to make a movie where we could laugh at him."
Asking women of any color to identify with a pimp would seem an unrealistic request, if not an offensive one. At least Brewer's "woman-get-behind-your-man movie"--which won the Audience Award at Sundance and hardly lacks for irresistible qualities--doesn't celebrate the pimp's profession or even his persona. What it does celebrate is his potential.
"I'm not writing from a place of progress with this movie," Brewer tells me later in a private chat, during which his cell phone rings the tune of Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean." "Just when you're beginning to like [the character], he does something outrageous like throw one of his girls out, along with her baby. The audience has just gotten a bead on this guy. They wonder, 'Why is he doing that?' Why? 'Cause he's a hustler and a pimp. I think audiences feel conflicted about the character because I don't judge him. 'Is it okay for me to laugh with him? He said something kind of funny then.' 'Is it okay for me to agree with him? Oh, my God--look what he's doing now!'
"I think I'm exploring my sins in Hustle & Flow. I'm exploring the fact that because my father died when I was in my 20s, I was just crazy with this premature midlife crisis, pushing everybody in my family to make a movie and not to sit on the couch in this little shotgun house and wait to turn to dust. My wife was working as a seamstress and she was also working as a stripper. At night I was writing screenplays in this bar and working in the receiving department of a bookstore. When you don't have any money, you really do have to hustle. And I was a real bastard. There finally came a point when my wife was like, 'Why is it always about you?' I was bonding with rappers in Memphis and I found that their work had this very confessional tone. They were talking about what was hard in their life, the things they're not proud of. There's this great decriminalization thing that happens when you put your sins into your work and say, 'This was me, this is what I was dealing with. And this is how I'm examining it right now.'"
Also in this issue: Rebirth Of The Crunk: 'Hustle & Flow' gives props to a pimp's upbeat rap by Dylan Hicks
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