Conversation with . . . Craig Brewer

28 02 2007

I recently had a candid conversation with director Craig Brewer about his latest film, “Black Snake Moan.” What is apparent is that Brewer, who directed the surprise hit Hustle & Flow, will not be the victim of a sophomore slump. He is in it to win it, and we should expect to see him around for a long time.

Tim Gordon: Thank you, first and foremost, for the time and opportunity. As we were saying I like the film and sort of understood it. Is the film’s backdrop the same as your debut film, “Hustle and Flow?”

Craig Brewer: It’s not Memphis, but it’s kind of a North Mississippi type of movie. I set it in a small Tennessee town. I’m doing movies that are of musical genres of my region. I’m not just doing movies and throwing music behind them. Hustle and Flow was my rap movie. Right now, I’m exploring the music that’s been the passion of my life, which is Blues. I’ve always been interested in Blues and Blues artists from Charlie Patton to Robert Johnson to R.L. Burnside to T. Miles Ford. These were some hard people; they’re older than old school. They were the first pioneers in really doing what I think rap has been able to do for a couple of decades which is articulate the fears, the anxieties and the injustices on poor people; to give a voice to it, even give a howl to it; by doing that you gain control over it.

I think it’s very important that these Mississippi Delta Bluesmen who had a palpable fear of death, of being killed, of being lynched, of levees breaking and having their whole town underwater and I’m not talking about Katrina. I’m talking about these are in the songs of these Bluesman. In the times where whites didn’t want them to say anything, they chose to go in the juke joints and not only articulate these fears and these injustices but to put song to it and to repeat it over and over again. I think by doing that they gained control over it; they had power over it instead of it having power over them. I think the same thing happened with kids in L.A. that grew up to be Dr. Dre, or Biggie Smalls. It just came a point where I don’t those guys wanted to celebrate like Kool and the Gang, they had something else on their mind.

Like rap, I’m trying to let a lot of people know that blues were the first. That song that Sam Jackson sings is 100 years old, that’s not just something that we wrote; we didn’t put all of those MFs in there; that song is part of African-American and southern culture. I can’t help it because I’m a music nut, I guess it means to some extent, I’m going to have to be an African-American nut.

TG: What is the correlation between Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan?

CB: Very much so. I’ve been very excited because the response because it has changed the way the studio is releasing the film. They tested it in Pasadena; you can’t get more lily white than Pasadena. I got to tell y’all, I know that I’m inviting the world to see these movies, but I’m making movies for the south. I’m a regional filmmaker; John Singleton is a South Central filmmaker. He was a person telling stories of his street. Spike Lee is a New York filmmaker; Woody Allen. These are people that we call directors because their passions are on their avenues, on their streets and the people and music that are constantly around them.

I can’t believe that this movie, even though it tested well, that you’re basing everything on a California audience. So they took the movie to Atlanta; a mixed audience and African-American audience. The studio heads were asking each other, “Why are they laughing when Sam’s taking out the hair dressing?; or when Sam puts the bible down because he doesn’t want evil to pass over it. The African-American audience went through the roof. They wouldn’t stop talking about it. They knew people like Lazarus, they didn’t necessarily chain up women, but they knew people who had live hard lives. They choose to love people unconditionally. It’s like that mean old uncle that would whip you, but he loved you. You had no doubt that he would lay his life down and even lay his life down for a stranger in need. I’ll be blunt, in the country where all my people are from there’s a strong African-American community. It’s through the church; I’ve seen it first hand where there are lost children, lost White children. I have an uncle who was adopted because they went to a small church and said, “Their momma left these two kids, who wants him?

I was very encouraged that Blacks saw “Black Snake Moan” and they were like I know that. I heard people say is Sam the Magical Negro in this movie? I’m waiting for that movie to get made. I don’t really think that’s what’s happening here. The worst things in the South have happen because of the collision of us coming together and the best things in the South happened because of the collision of us coming together and it usually starts with music. We just start playing, especially in Memphis the black artists were incredible but those white engineers knew how to record Howling Wolf just right. They knew how to jam with Booker T and M.G.’s.

I guess I just feel like I’m part of new generation that wants to be respectful of cultural boundaries. But I celebrate cultural boundaries, I tell people that I go to see movies in Memphis with predominantly Black audiences and it is a different experience than seeing it with a full White house; it’s not worse, it’s better situation. It’s like going to church, it’s interactive. We’re a Saturday/Sunday culture, it never stops. We go into Saturday night and we’re sinning, and sweating and drinking and we ride that crazy devil all the way into Sunday morning. Because the music is still happening, everybody’s sweating again, everybody’s up dancing again and we get a whole different experience and we start our work week and do the same damn thing the next weekend. That’s something that we’re all in the same mix with, we all respond to that in the South.

If there’s anything with this outlandish situation of this white woman being chained up by this old, black bluesman. I don’t want to offend anybody, I want everybody to put this in a big old stew and come to the end of it and go, “wait a minute are we supposed to be chained to each other? Could it be as simple as Christian values that the way to salvation is to save someone else? The way to peace is to give peace to someone else? I don’t think this girl has ever had unconditional love in her life. I think that Sam’s character with the blues he’s feeling, he put that devil music behind him and he’s a man who wants to live life right and by the book. Suddenly this girl, that everybody is saying, man that girl is crazy, she’s got to get sex, be careful around her. It deals with all those kind of Southern anxieties. You look at To Kill a Mockingbird; that poor man just went in to move a chifforobe and that white girl attacks him.

It’s all that tension throughout the movie people are thinking what is going to happen between these two or someone is going walk in the door because he didn’t beat her up. At the end, this ending where we all kind of put this stuff behind us and kind of felt a little foolish. I feel that in the South, around my people. I believe in boundaries, but I believe we’re closer than most people think.

TG: Do you see how people would be uncomfortable or turned off from the film by the way it’s being marketed?

CB: If we attacked the humanity and put it on a poster, would people want to see that? I like the fact that old white people have rented that movie (Hustle and Flow) and I hate rap, but I love the rap in your movie. I usually look them and say have you really listened to rap? Have you given rap a chance? Have you read about the artist who writes this rap? Is this movie the first time that you allowed yourself to appreciate it?

You have to understand where White America is coming from with Black culture is that at times, we’re completely obsessed with it because it’s pretty damn good. The best music that has come out of the world has come from African-Americans, predominantly in the South. We don’t feel like we have a right to appreciate it, we don’t feel that it’s our place to appreciate it. Many African-Americans would agree with that. From Elvis to Eminem its like well is that really their music to take? So this isn’t a studio idea, it’s my idea, its John Singleton’s idea. This is an idea where it’s like please don’t come at this movie thinking that this some heavy duty thing. I want you to laugh, I want people to have the experience of going through this crazy ride but at the end there is peace, there’s harmony. I think that the initial response when you hear the logline is that Sam Jackson is just having sex with this woman over and over again? That’s not what this movie is about. I’m not going to lie, I know it’s a flip on the Southern imagery that we’re used to. I’m getting hate from Aryan people out there that are saying, why the hell is our beautiful blond, White woman on the end of a chain of a country Black man?

TG: How do you answer critics or women who have a problem with the way women are portrayed in your films?

CB: I don’t think that you’re talking about all women who have seen my movies. If we’re talking about women who are critical of the way women are treated or saying it’s a misogynist movie, I think to myself man do we have to go retroactive on some films that are already out there. Do we need to pull “Raging Bull” off the shelf; do we need to pull “A Streetcar Named Desire” off the shelf? I remember one time when I was in Atlanta and one woman said could you explain your thoughts on how women are treated in your movie? I said that moment when he throws Lexus in the street? I said you’ve seen that kind of brutality in movies before? She’s says “no I haven’t,” in this nice little White Southern voice. I said let me explain this one movie to you, it’s about this guy named Stan Kowalski. He’s with his boys and their house playing dominos and their girls are in the next room and they’re making too much racket. Stan’s wife is pregnant. He goes in there and takes the boom box, drunk as all get out, and throws it out the window. Then he starts beating on his wife and punching her in the face. All his boys are grabbing him, putting him under the shower to somber him up. Her girlfriend takes her upstairs and he punches his boys telling them, we can’t have women around when we’re gambling. Then he calms down and says, where’s my girl, my baby? He goes outside and yells “bring her down here.” Her girlfriends say, you can’t be beating on her like that and he yells ‘bring her down her, Stella, Stella! What does she do? She goes downstairs and she f—s him and she wants to and we kind of want to too. His shirts all ripped, he got put under that shower; it’s Marlon Brando and he looks all good. It’s wrong, it’s really, really wrong!

I think about that a lot. We want to remove “A Streetcar Named Desire” off the shelves? We want to take “M.A.S.H.” the movie off the shelves because people women are saying we don’t like the way the characters are treating those women. I don’t necessarily like it either.

TG: That’s a wonderful comeback. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Major directors have these misogyny issues in their films. I’m not trying to pick on you, but how do you respond?

CB: That’s not our job. Our job is to bring up these things. I respect critics, but they really can’t do anything until we do something. We judge your position on what you think about our position. Our job is not necessarily to do what is right. I can’t believe that people will come to the end of “Black Snake Moan” and believe that I have a hatred for women.

TG: Initially, you received a lot of flack for your vivid portrayal of pimping in “Hustle and Flow.” In your opinion, what was that about?

CB: What people had issue with was that we could not separate Djay him from humor or outlandish behavior. We couldn’t say he’s the caricature pimp. 12 year olds know what a pimp is, that’s what music videos do or movies like “Superfly” or “Truck Turner;” there are some colorful pimps out there. That’s not the type of pimp I was talking about, I wanted to take the lowest of the low. Terrence was like I want to do this and that and I said you don’t have money for this and you’re not that smart. You’re not a good pimp! You’re a damn chauffeur and look at Lexus standing over you letting you know that you’re nothing. Everyday you’re thinking you were something back in the day for a little bit of time in high school when you’re doing your beats and your mixtapes and some other cat on the other side of the city is doing the same thing and now he’s on music videos and you’re not. Who doesn’t feel that.

The problem is that people wanted me to judge Djay; they wanted me to have him atone for doing wrong. Well it wasn’t on his mind and the pimps that I know it’s not on theirs. They’ll do something else because they would prefer not to do that. I know some people that say, I wish I had some hoes on the tray, so I can feel like I’m a pimp. That’s bullshit! Nobody wants to live that life and he didn’t want to either. I think that’s what the issue was that people sympathized with him, even possibly, identified with him. Can we identify with a man who is in a job that is tedious and boring and not exploiting his true gifts? Then you start to root for him and then he throws that girl out with her baby.

TG: I thought scene could have had more edge; his character could have been more of a gorilla pimp versus being a sugar pimp?

CB: He just wasn’t that good of a pimp. He just needed to get that woman out of his life. There’s no easy way to throw a woman and her child out in the street. That is scene that when audiences watch it they feel ambushed. They feel like wait a minute I started this movie not wanting to like this guy at all and now they just made a song called “Whoop that Trick,” and I want this team to work and now he does some stupid sh– like that. Then they see that tape in the toilet at the end of the movie and they’re like, “Oh, no I don’t know what this guy is going to do.” You watch this with a crowded house and people are shouting at the screen what he should do. People who aren’t worried about their bylines being on a bunch of things, are in theatres they’re saying “kill that motherf—er.” I’m not saying that we need to go into that bloodlust but its there because people get passionate about their creative endeavors. People watched him make, It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp,” they watched all the girls suffer, they watched the struggle and there it is in the toilet. They wanted to kill that guy and I think there is a victory to some extent in us wanting him to be mad, because we watched that outlandish dream. If I can just get a tape in this guy’s hand, then we’re golden; we’re out of here. It’s so unrealistic. The journey got him a little bit further. That’s what I want my movies to be.

I got a feeling that people are going to get some distance from BSM, they’re going to see my country music movie. My next film, I’m going to tell the story of the sanitation strike that leads to King’s assassination. That will be my soul movie. Isaac Hayes was in those marches, he was kicking German Sheppard off of nuns. No one has told that story and I’m going to tell it. It’s not because it’s an African-American story, but it’s a Memphis story. It’s about garbage men who are wondering if they can exist on their own and a black and white-owned record label wondering can they be on their own out from under Atlantic with Otis (Redding) just have died with all the Bar-Kays. All they have is this young man named Isaac Hayes and he wants to songs that are nine minutes long. That will be my film after my country western film.

TG: You have a level of comfort telling stories about African-Americans, would that be accurate?

CB: I am comfortable because I feel that I’m doing the research and I have a true passion and desire to tell these stories. I come at from a place that these are my neighbors, my citizens; I don’t mean Blacks but Memphians. I’ve got two Black mayors in my city. We are not in a segregated society in Memphis; we’re in the mix working side by side. I think some of the greatest stories and heroes of my region are African-Americans. I like blues music and I must say African-Americans abandoned blues music and I think that needs to be addressed. There’s a legitimate reason why it was abandoned, it was historically needed to be abandoned. The civil rights movement couldn’t really adopt blues, they needed gospel; they needed we shall overcome, they needed those battle cries. Soul music changed after the shot rang out at the Lorraine. I look out my office everyday and I see that wreath. It’s hard for me but I do want to earn the respect. I do not go into these projects, disrespectfully; I think about what I am doing. I know that I’m pushing the boundaries, but why do you think Sam was leaping to do this project. He knew that this would be a lasting movie. I just want people who look at me and scratching their head and saying, “what’s this guy doing?” should give me the benefit of a doubt because my heart is in the right place.

TG: Are you comfortable with how “Black Snake Moan” is being marketed?

CB: I very comfortable with it because the nod to this is those sex-ploitation movies. Let’s be honest, it’s a big old stew of all southern obsessions and fears. I like the fact that audiences sit in the dark watching my movie and are somewhat uncomfortable, but oddly aroused at the same time. I like that the audience would say that “I can’t believe that she just attacked that boy like a damn pit bull!” I go to movies in the South where people talk at the screen; I come from the theatre so there’s pageantry to our work. You know Tyler Perry didn’t just come up in the last couple of years, he’s been around for a long time in Memphis because those shows sell out. I’ve seen some crazy church plays where the devil comes out and grab people take them to hell! It’s absolutely outlandish, but I can’t help but love it. My message is that we’re all okay, I know this like a big old thunderstorm but it passes!

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