He doesn't look like it, but Craig Brewer is DJay, the street-wise Tennessee pimp who finds redemption in rap in the film "Hustle & Flow."
Only Brewer's not a rapper, he's a writer and director. And he's not black, he's white. But he knows what it is to be poor and struggling in the South, clinging to a longshot dream that looks like the only way out.
Like DJay, Brewer found success by following that dream. At his father's deathbed urging, Brewer made a movie in 2000: "The Poor and Hungry." That got him an agent, which eventually got him to producers Stephanie Allain and John Singleton, who took an interest in his screenplay for "Hustle & Flow."
After years of shopping the idea around to studios and hearing nothing but no, the trio decided to make the movie themselves.
It opened to critical acclaim, won the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and earned star Terrence Howard a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.
With filming wrapped on his latest project "Black Snake Moan," which is set in the rural South and stars Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, and the "Hustle & Flow" DVD coming out Jan. 10, Brewer, 34, sat down with the Associated Press in Los Angeles to talk about how the "misplaced hope" he sees in the South inspires his work.
AP: What role does Memphis play in your movies?
Brewer: It's incredibly important. We have a history of sin and salvation, and one really can't exist without the other. There's this really raw, primal cycle that happens in the South with seasons and sex and family and religion. You do get a little more spiritual during the holidays. You also drink and you smoke and you sleep around a little bit and you feel really bad about it and you pray. But we really mean it. With "Hustle," I've been accused of being sentimental. I can't help it. I live in a sentimental place, at least as far as I'm concerned.
I don't feel like I was trying to make a quote-unquote black movie, even though it had a predominantly black cast and it dealt with rap, the iconography of pimping and the blaxploitation-type of theme. I really feel like I was making a Southern movie.
AP: Why do you say Memphis is a site of misplaced hope?
Brewer: To the world, we seem like this place that killed Martin Luther King, when really, we were a city that needed Martin Luther King. And then he was killed and everybody got really sad after that. So we're a city that has a little bit of a scar on us. Now, a lot of us, especially in the rap community, we're feeling less and less apologetic for being who we are. We want to claim our heritage and at the same time we want to build something new. So there are a bit of misplaced dreams, but I think the younger generation is picking up the ball and I'm very proud to be one of the leaders of that generation.
AP: You wrote "Hustle & Flow" five years ago. How hard was it to get this movie made?
Brewer: ... I got an agent from "Poor and Hungry" and he read "Hustle." He got it to Stephanie Allain, who is my producing partner now. We went around town everywhere and it was hell for like two years. There was never this moment where somebody said yes. We then started looking for our lead and really got hooked on Terrence. There were a few studios that looked Stephanie right in the eye and said that's a problem. You need to get a rapper. You need to get someone more famous. Then Stephanie decided she wanted to make it herself. She was going to put $200,000 into it and she wanted to see if John Singleton would come in and do the other half. We went back to all the studios and they still didn't want to do it. So John just said he was going to finance it himself and he did.
AP: Where did you get the idea for this story?
Brewer: "Hustle & Flow " is actually about me and my wife making that first movie. I had my father, at the age of 49, die rather unexpectedly of a heart attack and literally his last words to me were you should do this script you wrote, this "Poor and Hungry" script, and don't shoot it on film. Don't spend all your money. Just celebrate the fact that you don't have that much money. So my wife and I would build these sets inside our house and we'd have to quiet down the neighbors and it was a very difficult time for us. My wife was working as a seamstress and then she started working as a stripper. I was writing in this bar and working in receiving at a bookstore. And really, this movie changed us and saved us from this crazy life we were living in Memphis. We became filmmakers. That's really what "Hustle & Flow" was about, we just changed it to rap and made the character a pimp.
AP: Why do you think the movie has such broad appeal?
Brewer: I think everybody has related to DJay. Everybody has thought, "I've been moving away from that dream that I had when I was a younger person, like an inch every day and now I'm on the other side of the room and I don't know if it's even possible for me to return to that time ever again. I'm closer to the end than I am to the beginning and is it OK for me to reboot?" Of course it's OK for you to reboot. Of course it's within your right to try and change your life. ... "Hustle & Flow" is for everybody who wants to reboot and I think that's why people connected with it.
AP: How vindicating was the Sundance response to the film?
Brewer: It was very interesting to be standing up in front of the audience at Sundance and there are all the people who said no — two or three times. There was this wonderful line of people to shake my hand and say "egg on our face." That felt good. But I can't fault them. I'm new and we wanted to make (the film) in a different way with new actors. It was a risky film. I don't really have any hard feelings toward anyone. I just urge them to, every once in a while, take a risk.
AP: Your next film is even more risky. What is the story behind "Black Snake Moan"?
Brewer: It's about this young white girl — I don't like the word nymphomaniac — but she suffers from this intense sexual addiction through these panic attacks she gets. It's about the relationship she has with this old black man who finds her beat up on the side of the road, nurses her back to health and he tries to help her. She's a very self-destructive young woman and so he keeps her chained, with a long chain, to this immovable rusty radiator out in his country home so she can't go back into town and hurt herself again.
AP: Are you connected to any of these characters like you were to DJay?
Brewer: I think I'm a little bit of both. It's interesting that in my first movie I'm exploring my psyche and my questions through a black pimp and now I'm doing it through a redneck white girl. ... "Merchant of Venice" and "Macbeth" explore very universal themes that touched everybody, but I don't think you have to be a young prince. So I pick a hot, white redneck girl and an old gray-bearded black man with a big ol' chain and a blues guitar on his back. It's exciting to me. What I want to explore is that I think we have a society right now that's really packed with a lot of anxiety and there's something in us that wants to be attached to something that is solid and immovable and safe.