With his 2005 film Hustle and Flow about a Memphis pimp turned aspiring rapper, Craig Brewer’s works became an essential part of the city’s history and culture. Showing the sometimes gritty underside of Memphis life that happens away from the neon lights and tourist attractions of Beale Street, Hustle and Flow was an instant classic, garnering a controversial Academy Award win for Memphis rappers Three Six Mafia, and eight years later spawning a rallying cry for Memphis Grizzlies fans. After Hustle and Flow, the Brewer-Memphis love affair continued with Black Snake Moan in 2006, and then the 2009 MTV series $5 Cover which featured Memphis musicians, including Ben Nichols of Lucero, Alicja Trout of River City Tanlines, rapper Al Kapone, and many others.
Now Brewer is preparing a November release for The Poor & Hungry, the “digiflik” shot in 1998 and originally released in 2000 that paved the way for the rest of his professional career by drawing attention at film festivals and introducing him to the people who would eventually help him make Hustle and Flow. Named after a midtown Memphis Bar, The Poor & Hungry is a low-budget independent film that will be a surprise for Brewer fans who don’t dabble in indie film viewership and aren’t used to the bare-bones qualities that come with a microbudget project. Shot in black and white for $20,000 using camcorders, amateur actors, and only a handful of volunteer crew members, the film obviously isn’t on the same production scale as his large budget, star-studded studio releases, but it does center around the fringe characters of Memphis that Brewer’s films are known for.
The movie follows Harper (Lindsey Roberts), a greasy, fast-talking street hustler, and her friend Eli (Eric Tate), a goodhearted chop shop employee who starts a relationship with cello player Amanda (Lake Latimer) after helping steal her car. Too often southern characters are mere caricatures with regionally inaccurate accents, but the chemistry and quick-wit between Eli and Harper keep the movie moving forward despite it being studded with the occasional indie movie trope (introspective scenes on train tracks, shots of an airplane silhouette by the full moon). The effortless dialogue when someone throws out a quip about an Arkansas divorce or when Harper asks Eli to put his pussy away makes it feel like you’re just overhearing real people shoot the shit, and considering that these were amateur actors filming between college classes and work makes their performances even more impressive. According to Brewer, this re-cut version is about 10 minutes shorter than the original release, keeping the pace quick and avoiding excess lag. While street crime is the connection between the characters, the real focus of the film is on the complex and difficult relationships that are formed as a result of it. The Poor & Hungry makes up for whatever it lacks in fancy production with excellent character work and a compelling story that explores race, class, music, and the duality that occurs when good people have to do bad things in order to stay afloat.