For years, Craig Brewer's The Poor & Hungry has held the title as the most famous least-seen movie in Memphis history. After years of production in Memphis, with a modest $20,000 budget, The Poor & Hungry was released in 2000 to much fanfare, including winning Best Digital Feature at the Hollywood Film Festival. It was a triumph of personal filmmaking for Brewer and the cast and crew.
But the "local indie film does good" story became a much more significant cultural touchstone when Brewer signed with John Singleton. The director of Boyz n the Hood and Shaft produced and financed Brewer's followup, Hustle & Flow, based on the strength of The Poor & Hungry. And everybody knows what Hustle & Flow did: won Sundance, got a major theatrical release, and was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one of them. Then there was another big release, Black Snake Moan, and then the biggest yet, a remake of Footloose.
It's like an urban legend, but it happens to be true. And, because of the vagaries of the film industry, it means that most people haven't seen the work that started it all, The Poor & Hungry. Apart from its initial release and festival tour, a few local screenings over the years, and a copy of the film that's been M.I.A. from Black Lodge Video for years, The Poor & Hungry has been much more widely known by reputation than by viewings.
At last, that can change. Brewer, filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, and producer Erin Hagee have spent a few years (about as long as it took to make the film in the first place) remastering and enhancing the film for its first release on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download. This week, The Poor & Hungry drops. It lives up to every bit of its mythology, like an untold origin story.
The Poor & Hungry is an out-of-circulation, missing link of Memphis filmmaking between Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train and Hustle & Flow. Filmed in black-and-white and depicting lives led on society's margins, weeds growing up through the cracks in abandoned parking lots, The Poor & Hungry immerses itself in a gritty but realistic milieu. Watching it is like unearthing a time capsule: You'll probably see some old friends and a few ghosts, including the since-scraped Butler Street Bazaar.
Eric Tate stars as Eli, a thoughtful thief who procures cars for a chop shop run by the sinister Mr. Coles (John Still). Eli's best friend is Harper (Lindsey Roberts), a hustler who's never met a stranger, begging, grifting, cajoling, and otherwise earning every penny she can to get by. In the opposite of a meet cute, Eli spies Amanda (Lake Latimer): He's stealing her car and peeping through her window as she plays her cello, oblivious to it all. One terrific chop-shop procedural montage later, Eli and Amanda encounter each other again at the police impound lot. They talk, and thus is a dramatic-romantic plot launched.
The Poor & Hungry is wonderful — and, maybe, because of the expectations, surprisingly so. First, the performances are all terrific. Tate is a quiet but engaging presence in the film. Listening to Amanda's music, as he does in a few scenes, Eli's eyes take on a kind of relaxed, joyful reverie. He's convincing as a man who found something he didn't know he was looking for. Brewer's script gives his character ample meat, including a scene I love where he puts model cars together.
Roberts is fantastic but for all different reasons. Harper is a ball of fire, complicated and charming. You don't believe her street patter but want to. Roberts' performance is ecstatic, layered with energy properly wielded. "If there's one thing I know about a Memphis stripper is they've got a warped sense of economics," Harper says. In another scene, she hits the bathroom, peels a tampon, and uses the paper wrapper to roll a joint.
Latimer is the third, crucial leg of the ensemble, and it's a heartfelt role. She has probably the most difficult assignment of the three leads: to appear the least complex and to slowly reveal who she is. Amanda has a fresh face like a John Hughes or other 1980s heroine: Molly Ringwald meets Ione Skye (and maybe a '90s dash of Joey Lauren Adams). Amanda and Harper shares a scene at the P&H Cafe that's reminiscent of the "50 eggs" sequence from Cool Hand Luke.
The Poor & Hungry was a true indie, starring a nonprofessional cast and shot guerrilla-style with a two-man crew — Brewer and his brother-in-law, Seth Hagee, credited as master technician — when everyone's schedule allowed it. They filmed in real chop shops, massage parlors, and strip clubs. "Sometimes, Memphis can be dangerous," says actor T.C. Sharpe (who plays a cowboy pimp) in the DVD extra Poor Man's Process, a 27-minute making-of/retrospective doc. Brewer, Tate, Roberts, Latimer, the P&H's Wanda Wilson, Hagee, Singleton, producer Stephanie Allain, and the P&H Cafe itself are at the fore in the documentary. Among the highlights are scenes from an aborted color version of the film, the origin of the film's premise, reminiscences by Brewer on his father's role in the film's existence, and the scene that made and still makes Roberts cry.
You can buy The Poor & Hungry in several special packaging iterations, which, in addition to the film, including signed posters, a T-shirt that harkens back to the old P&H mural, a limited-edition silk-screened print (designed by Flyer graphic designer Lauren Rae Holtermann), and other goodies. You can also opt to get just a digital copy of the film for free download at thepoorandhungry.com.
"I really wanted the film's rollout to be about love and friendship," Brewer says. "The goal isn't to make money. It's for as many people to see The Poor & Hungry as possible."
The Poor & Hungry