Sinning in the South, writer found salvation

When Craig Brewer stopped running from himself, he started writing things like 'Black Snake Moan'

March 04, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Craig Brewer, now 35, made a splash by writing and directing Hustle & Flow, in which he retold the old Hollywood story of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly putting on a musical in some farmer's yard. His version changed the idiom to rap and placed the tale in the mean streets of his ancestral home and current base, Memphis, Tenn.

The 2005 film was a do-rags-to-riches fable peopled with pimps and hookers and blessed with a killer lead character called Djay, who feels he's spinning his wheels running a stable of prostitutes. Djay experiences an epiphany when he watches a high-school buddy record gospel. By casting Terrence Howard as Djay, pimp-turned-rap artist, the moviemaker found a star with the vibrancy and expansiveness to make that revelation hit home.

Hustle & Flow won skeptics over with the genius of Howard's performance and the glittering ore in the writing, like Djay's opening riff that dogs "don't know about no birthdays, or Christmas, or that one day God gonna come callin'. So you know, people like you and me, we always guessin' -- you know -- what if?"

Brewer has answered his own "what-if?" with Black Snake Moan, a startling and elating musical movie that opened this weekend. He's the genuine article: a born moviemaker who takes his experience in bars, music clubs and life and transmutes it into cathartic art and entertainment. Black Snake Moan tells the story of a black man named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former bluesman turned farmer on the rebound from a marriage gone sour. He saves the soul of an abused, alone and sexually volatile white girl, Rae (Christina Ricci), when he literally anchors her in life. He adopts an unlikely solution to her uncontrollable urges: He takes a long ugly chain and uses it to fix her to a radiator.

In this movie, Brewer is both healer and provocateur. He explores audiences' hypocrisies and confusions about Ricci's erotic presence in an era of girls going wild. And he juggles sticks of social-political dynamite.

Over the phone from a promotional stop in Washington, he acknowledges that his plot "so totally plays into the Southern iconography" of the sexually excited or frustrated farmer's daughter. "You can even look at To Kill a Mockingbird: poor Tom Robinson was just going to bust up an old chifforobe for a nickel and this white girl attacks him and misery befalls him." But Brewer throws all this obvious historical fear in the air because he ultimately wants us to be free of it.

"I wrote Black Snake Moan almost immediately after Hustle & Flow but before I made Hustle & Flow," he says. In the effort to get Hustle & Flow on-screen, "I was being flown back and forth between L.A. and Memphis over and over again."

It was precisely the sort of peripatetic existence Brewer had tried to escape when he moved to Memphis. And it fed his imaginative vision of a woman being fastened with metal links to a real home.

"My dad was part of a shipping organization," he says. "I was born in Virginia on an Army base and we moved to California and Chicago, but every single family member was and is in Tennessee. We were the satellite. My dad always said, 'Memphis looked best in my rear-view mirror.' I gave that line to Ludacris in Hustle & Flow. But when we grew older, and I lost both my grandfathers, I found I wanted to move back home."

A chubby kid who wasn't good at sports, Brewer turned to theater early. He also steeped himself in movies of all kinds thanks to the home-video revolution of the early '80s. After high school, he studied drama at the American Conservatory Theater. Susan Stauter, the Conservatory's director, taught him playwriting. She told him that in his writing, "I was running away from the South: I was always doing these epics, things that were in the contemporary world but obviously in cities, almost like Friends episodes. I was writing about yuppies, and it wasn't until I moved back home and started sinning with everybody else [that] I found salvation."

'Out-of-control life'

Potholes dotted his road to salvation. Trying to launch Hustle & Flow, both Brewer and his producer, Stephanie Allain, went through hard times. Allain had risen through the story department at Columbia Pictures and been head of Jim Henson Pictures when she decided to move into independent production. So she wouldn't be forced to take another job, she sold her own house -- and also paid Brewer's rent.

He and his wife had just had their first child. "We had gone through a crazy time when I was working at a bookstore and writing in bars, she was working as a stripper in one strip club." A lot of Hustle & Flow had come from that, but they were weary of "living an out-of-control life ... we wanted to grow up and be happy."

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