On Friday, October 29th, Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer screened selected scenes from his John Singleton-produced film Hustle & Flow. The preview met with rave reviews from the audience, but what did the Flyer's entertainment writers think? Chris Davis and Chris Herrington go head-to-head, debating the apparent merits and possible pitfalls of Brewer's latest project.
Chris Davis: It's pretty obvious that there are things to get excited about in Hustle & Flow -- and some real concerns.
In his interview with The Commercial Appeal's film writer John Beifuss, Brewer addressed Hollywood's not-so-subtle racism. He also addressed Hollywood's concern that a white guy can't write and direct a film which deals directly with the lives of black street hustlers. I'm on the side of the filmmaker, but it's hard to deny that there's a distinctly white voice driving this story. But does it matter?
In the opening scene, DJ (Terrence Howard), a crazy-haired pimp, compares men to dogs: They both get little pink hard-ons, but a dog doesn't understand its own mortality. The monologue sounds like it was ripped from a Tennessee Williams play. That should be a good thing, but in the mouth of a Memphis hustler, the poetry feels theatrical and inauthentic. Then the soundtrack kicks in, and things are back on track.
Chris Herrington: I think your point about the "distinctly white voice" and your insight into the theatrical language in the pre-credit scene come together in the last scene shown, where the white character Shelby (DJ Qualls) sits on the front porch with DJ and his sidekick (Anthony Anderson), waxing philosophic about gangsta rap and Memphis music. Now, obviously Shelby is a cerebral character and this kind of over-heated speech fits his make-up, but it still felt like the director talking.
I may be more sensitive than most to this since hip-hop was my first musical love, and I tend to find it wearisome when white folks romanticize gangsta rap. On the positive side, these bookend speeches were about the only things that rang false to me from what we saw, and even my reservations are pretty minor.
The thing that's always stood out to me is the potential disconnect between the way Brewer talks about the project and the way it was cast. Listening to Brewer, the films that come up as a comparison are things like Scorsese's Mean Streets and John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But the résumés of the actors signify more like Hip-Hop Road Trip. Will there be tension between these opposed types or will Hustle & Flow bring them together? What do you think?
Davis: Over time, Brewer's commentary has taken on a messianic tone: Make your own movie, and if it's good, you're saved. This isn't a criticism.
But when Brewer compares Stax to the Hypnotize Minds camp, he sounds like the reincarnation of Sam Phillips: part salesman, part saint. Hustle & Flow feels like classic mythmaking, and it's probably appropriate that this film drops faces like a rapper checks names.
In Brewer's first film, The Poor and Hungry, the romantic entanglement between a car thief and a classical cellist is the sort of unreal thing that only happens in movies, but the film's genuinely proletarian spunk gives it an edge. Brewer fancies himself a man of the people. His subject matter may be more Scorsese, but there's some Frank Capra in the mix.
My sense was that Brewer is actively reinventing the Sun/Stax myth in a rap context in order to claim hip-hop as the third pillar of Beale Street. Is it fair to give hip-hop Southern roots?
Herrington: Well, hip-hop was born in the parks of New York City to Jamaican parents. You can draw parallels to blues but also to doo-wop.
Brewer is absolutely a salesman and that's to his and his art's benefit. In drawing the connections between his roots as a shoestring-budget filmmaker and his character's struggle to make it in the so-called rap game, Brewer is shaping his own future reviews.
I also think it's appropriate that you reference classic Hollywood. I find more Howard Hawks than Frank Capra in Brewer's style -- the unobtrusive visuals, the feel for dialogue- and character-driven comedy, the combination of spontaneous fun with tight storytelling.
All of these virtues were apparent in the two sequences screened, especially the recording scene, where a song called "Beat That Bitch" morphs into "Whup the Trick." Some people might be prepared to flinch at finding comedy in that content, but the scene flowed so beautifully that the audience couldn't help but get lost in the moment.
Brewer insists that he wants to work in the studio system. In the good old days, there was no disconnect between movies as mass entertainment and enduring works of art. A lot of that has been lost over the past few decades, but, at his best, Brewer seems like the kind of filmmaker who can bridge those distinctions. Hustle & Flow seems to have a shot at uniting the sensibilities of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Road Trip. I say more power to him.
Oh, and whatever else, I saw enough to know that Memphis is gonna love this movie.