Every now and then, we’ll track down a respected human being from a town to tell stories about said town until they are tired of telling stories. This is one of those times.
There was a certain excitement in Memphis about me meeting Craig Brewer. Be it ESPN 92.9 Memphis radio host Chris Vernon, SBNation.com editorial director Spencer Hall, or even chief operating officer of the Memphis Grizzlies Jason Wexler, each stressed that a talk with the director best known for writing and directing 2005’s Hustle & Flow was a must.
The following is that conversation, which took place in Brewer’s studio in downtown Memphis.
Why did you decide to live in Memphis?
All my family is from here or from the area. To be honest with you, I’ve had plenty of opportunities where I could probably choose somewhere else to live, but I think ultimately what it came down to was that this is the one place where I can feel creative. The one place where I can feel safe to feel creative.
Whenever I’ve lived in other regions, including California, there was always this feeling of — how do I put it — embracing prestige, wealth, or a kind of “keeping up with the Joneses” and you would do something and were judged off of what you did, but not necessarily for its merit. But how much money it made.
And when I was just making movies here, and this was before Hustle & Flow — I’m just talking about movies on my video camera and then cutting them together with friends and putting them up in a local bar — you felt this rhythm to the place. And that felt like it was an old rhythm that happened with Stax artists, a rhythm that happened with Elvis, a rhythm that happened with B.B. King.
So now that I have a career and can make things, I don’t necessarily have to be in Los Angeles all the time and can be where there’s not that judgment. Here my movies come out and people are like, “Ooh, I loved it,” and not necessarily, “Ooh, I saw that it didn’t necessarily reach 20 million dollars opening weekend.” In the sphere that is Hollywood it’s hard to escape that, and because it is, you can’t really feel creative to do anything. You’re held ransom by judgment, if that makes sense.
On a much smaller scale, I’ve noticed from being on the road away from New York, my neurons seem to be firing at a faster, more creative clip. Which, at times, makes me wonder why I don’t live elsewhere, especially back home, outside of the bubble. It seems as if that’s what you’re getting at.
I feel that, because I came up through the indie Memphis film scene, that now the industry is changing and a lot of people who were once scratching their heads, saying, “I don’t see how you can live in Memphis and occasionally make a film and be in the Hollywood system” now are like, “Oh god, I have to figure that out for myself.” Because the movie industry is changing and less movies are being made for more money, which means there’s a lot of people out there that used to have steady incomes of a certain economic standing and now that the money isn’t coming in, they’re really beginning to question “Am I really happy here? Can I really live somewhere else and still work?” So the way I’ve done it, though some people were critical of it, now it’s turned around and they want to try to figure out what I’ve got. So I’ve kind of lucked into a really good situation of being able to live in this place and then go out to L.A.
It’s kind of like putting on your name tag when I used to work at Barnes & Noble. That’s me, going out to L.A., me going out on the Barnes sales floor.
Do you find yourself wanting to tell the story of Memphis? Or the South?
I think it’s hard to, because Hollywood doesn’t exactly give you a lot of encouragement to tell those stories, because — barring your Forrest Gump or The Help — there’s only a handful of movies they can point to and say, “Oh yeah, that’s the Southern story or Southern character that transcended all global markets and was able to make hundreds of millions of dollars.” But for me, I can’t help it. I find that there has been struggle in the South, but there’s also a great amount of progress. And it’s not that I’m ever writing from a place of progress, but I do think there are more interesting and explosive relationships here that are unique to the region.
And the people of the region, some might say are damned, but I’d say are just bound to each other. With all the bad stuff, everything, whether we like it or not. Everybody that’s in this region I personally think is stuck with everyone else in this region. And you can’t necessarily take them out of the region and put them with people of other regions and assume that they’re going to get along, more than even their tempestuous relationships back home.
There’s this connection that you can’t really deny and I’m attracted to the stories that take place in that world. So I sometimes think it holds me back, like I’d like to try things that are outside of the region with that particular type of Southern storytelling, but I can’t help it.
I’d love to tell the story of Stax records. I’d love to. There’s a few movies that I’ve written that take place in this region, or at least in the South. But sometimes they’re hard to get made. I’ve been fortunate to make the ones that I’ve made.
How would you describe the arts community in Memphis?
The one thing that I think is really surprising about the region is how arts-friendly it is. First of all, I grew up in theater and it seems like every theater is struggling to keep their head above water. But Memphis has four or five theaters and they all run in the black and are all successful. But there’s also the film community here, which is very much like a family. We all have our own festival, which is called Indie Memphis. And every year, everyone is making content for that festival, myself included. There’s also a video store called Black Lodge Video that’s just filled with every type of imaginable movie. They have everything. These geniuses run the store, but they also have a local section, which shows artists making things for the community.
Where we’ve always struggled is where many places have always had their shit together. Such as Louisiana or Atlanta or Nashville. And that is a leap into a more global marketplace, where you can make a lot of money off of it. That’s not really the Memphis thing, and the places where we’ve had it in our history where something suddenly exploded, artists at Stax or Hi Records or Sun, they were still making music for Memphis, then it just suddenly caught fire, and it went everywhere. We haven’t had one of those in a long time, but you can argue that Three 6 Mafia and even what happened with Hustle was a little bit like that. At first, Memphians would see Hustle & Flow and they’d be like Ugh, we don’t want people thinking about us like that, and then it got nominated for two Academy Awards and they were like, Yeah, that’s my shit, that’s my movie. And I grin at that because I’ve seen that happen before. I’ve seen it happen with the Grizzlies.
Is there some sort of apprehension with winning or success?
I think we’ve been hurt more times than we’ve had big triumphs. And so, there’s always a little bit of this feeling that, at some point, with this Memphis mentality, we’re going to get to some point and then it’s not going to happen. And there’s been a few artists like that. On a punk level, one of the most incredible artists in town was Jay Reatard. His albums were incredible, when I would see him play locally, it was incredible. And this was a guy who was really real. Was not living in some mansion somewhere, was still over on Blythe where he always lived. But right when he was taking off, he died. And so, that was a quintessential Memphis moment. You know, just getting right up to the point and then, due to reasons that are in your control and out of your control, somehow it doesn’t quite get there. But I also think that’s a good thing. Because it at least makes you realize, at the very least, I can just play to home and still live. And still be happy.
Is that a psychological head game for you?
Totally. And it’s what makes me sometimes want to move away from projects that are specifically Memphis. Because I’ll fall on my sword for this city. I just don’t know if the rest of America will want to as well.
You mentioned the Grizzlies. The team seems to reflect the city you describe in an almost perfect way.
I still think, even though that team only got to a certain point, it’s the story of the year. But I can’t help it we’re from Memphis, so I see it that way. There’s always been this feeling in Memphis that we’re a little bit worried about what people think about us. And even when you kind of have an attitude like, “Man, I don’t care what people think about me,” you can just smell the bullshit. They really do. They worry. Hustle & Flow got caught up in that. “What are we saying about our city?” “What are we saying about the people?” Well, first of all I’m not saying everybody is like the people in this movie, and also, what’s wrong with the people in this movie? So there’s that thing. And so, when the Grizzles and the whole “Whoop That Trick” thing happened, I think there was an attitude shift where nobody wanted to apologize for being Memphis anymore. And instead of being like, “Well, if only we could take you to a Peabody brunch you would see that we’re not rude or caustic or animals, we’re civilized,” now it’s like, “Oh, you’re saying something bad about my city, well, fuck you.”
A lot had to do with a younger generation of Memphis that wasn’t so saddled by the city’s history, which, by the way, what happened around the corner did affect that.
And as much as we’d like to believe it didn’t, it did.
One of the problems I think with the Martin Luther King assassination as a point of identity for the city is that I always think, whenever the story of King is told, they always tell it right up to the point where he gets shot, but they always forget about what happened after that.
There was a sanitation strike happening here. Garbagemen were the lowest of the low, they could be working full-time and still apply for welfare. It was deplorable the conditions they were under, and King came here to help them, even when all these people were telling him not to. But he was like, No, I have to. And then he comes here and leads a march that’s incredibly violent. And his people are like, Did you see what we told you? Don’t go to Memphis again. And he still came to Memphis to help them out. And then he’s killed in pursuit of that.
But what people don’t realize is that his sacrifice led to this victory in town. The mayor caved and the workers got what they were wanting, and the city had a victory. But they ultimately couldn’t see past the tragedy. Of all the places in the world, King had to be killed here.
It’s like a curse.
No one has ever called it a curse, but I think it’s been this awkward thing for the city to both claim and talk about and get past. But I do think there’s something that’s happened in the past couple years where there was a little more of an embrace of both the good and bad of Memphis.
Do you see yourself as a historian of the city?
I love reading everything about Memphis history. I’m almost an expert on the sanitation strike through the King assassination.
Every Wednesday, at 3:30, there’s a tornado siren. They test it every Wednesday. It’s the same siren that was there in 1968. So, King comes into town and he’s been told not to come back into town by his own people, there’s been threats against his life, and he’s at the Lorraine Motel. He hears that they’re going to do a speech over here at Mason Temple. He says, You know what, there’s a tornado warning in town, do you hear the sirens. No one’s going to be at this thing. So he sends Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy to Mason Temple to do the speech for him. He stays alone at the Lorraine Motel. They go down to the Mason Temple and it’s packed. Everyone has braved the tornadoes. So they call him up and say, “You’ve got to get down here.” So King, with those sirens going off, alone in his room, decides to go and do this. This is with people calling him and threatening his life and everything.
And he goes down to Mason Temple and wings a speech. And that speech is “The Mountaintop” speech. And everyone always remembers the mountaintop part, but he also has a great part [referring to the threats]: “What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?” But then he ends with “and I’m not fearing any man, my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
So, whenever I hear that tornado siren, I can’t help it. Just that tiny detail that I read about the tornado sirens going off during that speech, and how the wind was shaking the windows and how King was even flinching because they sounded like gunshots in the church and the electricity in the air with all the sanitation workers listening to him. It’s something so small, just hearing that siren, but I can’t help it.
One time I went outside during this thunderstorm. The sky was gold and the clouds were really violent-looking, but this rainbow had come right out of the clouds and shined down on the Lorraine. And I remember I grabbed my camera and took a picture of it.
It’s little things like that. It’s why I read everything I can about Memphis history. I love that shit.