“It is like we’ve fallen out of a stereotype tree and hit every branch on the way down,” says director Craig Brewer about his pimp-hop, trickster fable Hustle & Flow, in which a Memphis flesh peddler flips his life’s script to spit crunk rap flows. “But that’s kind of the point.” Studio execs passed on the screenplay when it was shopped around, but the movie triggered an acquisition frenzy at Sundance. Hustle producer Stephanie Allain, Brewer’s first ally, notes with glee what John Singleton, the film’s $3 million “primary investor,” told studios jonesing for a pre-festival screening: “If you want to see the movie, buy a parka.”
Despite (or because of) its near-record-setting distribution deal for a Sundance indie ($9 million for Hustle, and $7 million for two future, Singleton-produced projects), the film has come under criticism—most recently in a Slate article—for characterizations seen as either banal or repugnant, for its Joseph Campbell-arced structure, and for what its pre-release windfall means for the “independent” scene. It is certainly primed for success, given the current cachet of pimp mythology.
“What’s fucking with people is they’re wondering if the tone is appropriate,” says Brewer. “My favorite part of the Slate guy’s article is [when the writer calls main character DJay] a ‘pimp with a heart of gold . . . he smacks his bitches, but only when they deserve it.’ . . . The problems [critics are] having is that [DJay] is outside of their stereotype and therefore that makes him kind and gentle. He throws a woman out with her baby!”
He continues, excitedly, “Are there DJays in Memphis? Yeah. Did a woman throw a hooker out of her house [next door, during filming], flinging a glass at her with toddlers running around outside? Yes. Did John [Singleton] go to a shake joint where somebody got shot because the DJ wouldn’t play a rap demo? Yes. This is the city I live in. Everybody in Memphis talks, walks, and looks like a blaxploitation movie.” Not everyone—say, Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP and Memphis native—might agree with that assessment, but Brewer, radiating goofy earnestness, continues.
“What is interesting is the ‘indie blockbuster’ idea; that Hollywood’s going to buy cheaper movies and put the kind of money behind them that they would a blockbuster. What’s wrong with that?” He cracks, “Look, we didn’t make The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. [Hustle] has a commercial, mythological, hero’s-journey structure to it. I have always wanted it to be reflective of The Commitments, Footloose, Flashdance, and Rocky.”
Those may be unusual reference points for a Sundance indie, but Singleton’s turn as financier and Allain’s determination deserve recognition, not merely because of Hustle‘s hefty haul. “There are still no black studio executives in Hollywood who can green-light a movie,” notes Allain. “That’s part of the reason why John was fed up with the studios. Now, he’s green-lighting, and that’s really the future for blacks in Hollywood having power. If more people can get in that position, and have the courage to put their money where their mouth is, that’s real power.” Easier said than done, but Singleton’s gambit is a bold first step for aspiring minority moguls.
Singleton says, “A guy like me, Stephanie—a black, female producer in Hollywood [who first touted a then 21-year-old Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood script when she worked at Columbia Pictures]—and a guy like Craig, for us to get together, there’s just no precedent. What I’m trying to do in film is what others did a couple of years ago in the music business. Some moguls stepped up and did what they had to do to gain a foothold. Nobody of color has done that in the film industry.”
Singleton, Allain, and Brewer are specific and candid about the popular cinema they envision. “It’s not like we’re making movies that are gonna show at the Angelika for two weeks,” says Singleton. “We’re making movies that people really want to see.” Their next film stars Justin Timberlake. Brewer says, “We’re going to do for blues what Hustle & Flow did for hip-hop.” Robert Johnson, prepare to be Justified.