Memphis Movie Master Craig Brewer

by Chellie Bowman | photos courtesy of Craig Brewer

Brewer is a Memphian, first and foremost. And yes, he is also an extremely successful film director, producer, and screenwriter. His most recent project Coming 2 America (2021) was released on Amazon earlier this year, but you may also know him through some of his other films Hustle & Flow (2005), Footloose (2011), Dolemite is My Name (2019), and the TV series Empire.

So what’s going on with you right now? Are you still actively involved with Coming 2 America or are you working on new projects?

I’ve moved on in regards to the fact that it was a huge hit for Amazon and I’ve never really had a huge hit before. I’ve never really had that experience in my close-to-20 year career. It’s nice to work so hard on something over a difficult time and everyone who is a part of it feels really good about it. Whenever I leave a movie behind it’s kind of like you’ve made this child and put it out in the world–it’s gonna get beat up, but maybe later it won’t get beat up, or maybe it’ll be praised now and beat up later. I’ve learned over the multiple projects I’ve done to love them as much as I can but to be at peace with everything and move forward.

So I know I’m at this place where I’m supposed to be writing my next movies and figuring out what I’m going to do but I’m also just trying to recharge a little bit, trying to learn how to cook. I’ve never really been a person who cooks, and you know what it is, more so? I’m trying to identify my known unknowns, things that are in my life that I’ve either put off or I know that I’ve created some sort of mental block around because I don’t want to face something. Sports would be one of those. I like watching a basketball game but I’m not like my friends who know everything about it. I’m dealing with a lot of this masculine identity thing that’s been pushed into my head since I was a baby. We were a sports family. You know I guess I’m just going to embrace the fact that I watched musicals and joined musical theater and danced in ballet shoes and maybe I’m not a sports guy. But it’s also learning the things you don’t know all that much about and going, ‘Well do I like this? Do I not like this? Where is my head honestly with things?’ And now I’ve come to find I actually like cooking, it’s the closest thing to meditation I’ve found. You really tune everything out and jump in.

What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?

I think the thing that’s gotten me in trouble is also the thing that’s part of what I do, which is to say I like being in control, listening to a situation someone is going through, and finding the best way through it.

A lot of my job on set is seeing people with a lot of insecurity, because it’s the arts and we’re putting ourselves out there on a high wire. You’ve got to listen, be nurturing and supportive, but also be kinda firm with it. And I think that what I’ve found the older that I’ve gotten is that sometimes that ekes out into friendships and relationships and sometimes that’s not good, sometimes people just want to vent, sometimes people just want to be listened to. I’m
trying more and more to deal with empathy, but also let the people around me know that if there’s one thing I’m learning with age it’s that no one and nothing is certain and the only thing we can really do to make situations better around us is to let people know they’re safe. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.

I work with a lot of younger people in the industry and the first thing I want to do is tell them, ‘Trust me you’re stressing about this too much. I’m not trying to invalidate that it is stressful, but as someone who’s been through a bunch of cycles of this if I could go back in time and talk to myself the one thing I would say is you’re putting too many life-altering ramifications on this one moment.’ That’s a very hard thing to tell anybody who’s in something. So I think the biggest thing for me to do, including with my kids and family, is to breathe a little bit more even though you’ve got an answer cocked in your brain, sit on it for a little bit longer and maybe just get used to saying ‘How can I help?’.

What’s the first thing you do when you get back to Memphis from LA?

There’s a sense in Memphis that I have a family, that’s hard to have in Los Angeles. So when I’m there what I try to do is bite into the LA of it— go for a ride, walk through the park, go to Musso & Frank’s.

When I come home to Memphis I have a tradition here at Crosstown that when I come into my apartment I always put on Booker T. and the M.G.’s Green Onions. There’s something about that song that just goes ‘You’re back, you can relax, you can let your tummy hang out a little more, you can be free of a little bit of judgment, you know everything here.’ I’m on the 10th floor over here so I like to go out on the patio and look out over midtown and it’s a very calming, peaceful experience—having Booker T. behind me and Midtown in front of me.

Speaking of Crosstown, I heard Art Bar was reopening soon!

That would be great. Whenever I would go to Art Bar I would say ‘Okay this place is doing something right,’ because I was seeing the promise of what I was hoping this place would be—a very integrated crowd, everybody feeling like they were safe and welcomed. And I never thought I would get to a point where I would say that in relation to age. Like I never thought I’d get to that point where I would worry about that kind of exclusion. But I never feel that in Memphis.

I’m turning 50 this December and I’m looking forward to it, for a number of reasons. My father died at 49 unexpectedly of a heart attack. I’m in that year where death could be around the corner and there’s something on a spiritual level where I wanted to get to 50. But also I think when you get to 50 you’ve been through it enough that maybe you can transition into something else and there’s not so much fear attached to it.

How does where you live influence how and what you make?

I think that’s like the big question for me that I’ve had to answer a lot in this last year. We’re in a time right now that diversity and righting the wrongs of systematic racism in all industries is something we all have to do our part in. For me, it has been a little bit of a crossroads because a lot of the subjects that I’ve been interested in have predominantly African American talent or stories attached to it. For a white man there’s a level of responsibility that comes with it, being involved with content from a culture that’s not your own. I used to feel good about my place with it all, but recently I’ve been questioning ‘Well should I feel good about it? Is it my place to do anything like this?’ And the only thing that I can really go off of to try to explain to people at least where I’m coming from is where I live and what I feel like my true influences are. I, of course, think that there should be numerous more African American men and women in the director’s chair. And I’m working right now to produce projects that are putting them there. It’s always been something that’s been a part of my production standards since Hustle & Flow. African American producers like John Singleton and Stephanie Allain gave me my start and I’ve always tried to surround myself with collaborators from cultures outside my own. I feel that I’ve been a better man because of it, a better director because of that kind of inclusion.

I go back and forth on whether it’s something I should explore or something I should leave. It ultimately gets down to I can’t help what music I love, I can’t help what stories I love, and I can’t help but love the people I love and want to work with. And I think I just need to listen, learn, and if I’m doing something wrong let me know and I’ll try to be better with it. But Memphis really contributes a lot to that vibe that I feel very connected to. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything particularly false, I don’t think I’m doing anything that doesn’t feel like the same thing I was doing back in 1999 when I was making my first movie, The Poor & Hungry. I don’t think I’m doing anything different than Hustle & Flow or $5 Cover like we did. I feel like I’m still in my same zone. And I also try to explain pronouns to people in my family—if it’s going to make people feel good, learn it, roll with it. We’ve got to break out of the things that have been taught to us as the norm.

What are your three favorite movies?

What are you doing to me? I still can’t help it, I’m still always going to lead with Purple Rain. I have never screened Purple Rain with someone new and not fallen in love with the movie again. I love its operatic audacity, I love the costumes, I love the color palette, I love Prince, Apollonia, and The Time. Basic of a rock ‘n’ roll movie it is, it always inspires me—there’s something about the way it uses music that always floors me.

Fiddler on the Roof, the musical. I love it. I find that the older I get the more I’m getting to understand Tevye a little more. There’s something about his struggle with change versus tradition—where’s the line? When are you going to be pushed too far for your beliefs? How much of what you believe was something that was just taught to you? I’m a sucker for musicals.

You said three? I’ve got so many more than three. Okay, I can’t help it. I love Rocky. And I love it for a reason that a lot of people forget about with Rocky, which is that it’s about people who have a very low self-image of themselves and the dream that is so apparently beyond their capable grasp ultimately makes them better at being themselves. Rocky usually gets put under the category of a boxing movie, but it’s more meaningful than people realize. For me it’s about the construction of what I find so hard when I’m writing a movie, the third act. There’s a great quote by Truman Capote where he says that “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” I’m always finding that the third act is the hardest one to accomplish. Rocky goes into the third act not trying to win, but trying not to die. He ultimately doesn’t win the trophy against Apollo Creed, but stays standing with him for all ten rounds. I feel like that’s very human, that’s more human than a lot of things I’ve seen in cinema. When I’m pitching an idea to people in Hollywood they want that moment with the belt over the head and I always say ‘Well like yeah but a lot of people don’t have that.’ And I would also argue that the trophy is not ultimately what we learn in the journey that’s the win. The win may be something a little less tangible, something different than what everyone else assumes a win is.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life creating film?

I would say that where I went wrong in the beginning of my career was trying to copy what other people did. I understand the instinct of wanting to do that. If you’re doing that I think there’s benefit to what you learn along the way through imitation. Where I think I went right was on my first real completed movie, The Poor & Hungry, I really did feel like I was making my last movie. I used $20,000 of inheritance that I got from my father passing away and there was an element of bitterness I had in me because my dad wanted to help me make movies after he retired in his 60s, but he died early. It rocked my world a little bit, that there’s really no certainty in anything and you have to make your most personal mark as soon as you can. And what I mean by personal mark is make something that if the lights got turned out on you someone could look at that work and say ‘Oh this is what matters to this person.’ You don’t need a lot of money to do that. You don’t need big stars to do that . But what you do need to do is look at your life and look at the things that are affecting you and the closer that you strike to the bone the more your work is going to be able to penetrate the membrane of the screen or the television or the laptop or the phone that this movie is playing on and reach the person who’s watching it. Because ultimately that’s what we’re doing with movies, we’re providing an opportunity for people to sit in the dark with no judgment on them, to watch something and realize that maybe some of the things in their life they’re not alone with. And no one ever really thinks about doing that with their first film but I think it’s what your first film should be about.

Any last thoughts?

The only thing I’ll say is don’t be too down on yourself if you’ve gone through this whole pandemic and you haven’t necessarily produced anything. Because I think that the things that we’re learning in it is gonna be soil for a garden somewhere down the line. And I think that if we kind of fall into an artistic depression about the fact that we maybe could have been more productive, well, I don’t think we should do that to ourselves. Try to find some purpose in the time that we’ve had to unplug, and then just inch your way back into that pool.