- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

Craig Brewer remembers asking his father if he could see the 1982 sex comedy “Porky’s.” “It’s time I saw an R-rated movie,” he says he argued at the time.

His father agreed, but only about the R-rated part.

They watched the 1969 feature “Midnight Cowboy” instead, a choice inspired by a minister friend of Mr. Brewer’s father.

“He encouraged his Christians to be cultured … and not to be afraid of rated R movies but to be strong in their faith,” Mr. Brewer says.

“I might as well have been watching ‘Benji.’ It gave me a lump in my throat,” Mr. Brewer says. “When I got into my life I found out I was surrounded by a lot of Ratso Rizzos.”

The protagonist of Mr. Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow,” a pimp with dreams of being a rapper, is as emotionally defective as Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso or Jon Voight’s Joe Buck.

That film officially announced Mr. Brewer as a talent, a writer-director who could draw us into lives that most would stamp as unredeemable.

His latest film, “Black Snake Moan,” offers more flawed figures to consider.

A blues singer named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds an unconscious woman (Christina Ricci) on the side of the road and takes her back into his house. Young, beautiful Rae is slow to awaken, but when she does, he realizes she’s a creature of constant sexual craving.

Rather than letting her leave, the spiritually minded Lazarus chains her to the radiator until she can start to think clearly. He figures it’s the only way to save her soul.

Did we mention Miss Ricci is practically naked for the first third of the movie?

Mr. Brewer, 35, says he wrote “Moan” while laboring to get “Hustle & Flow” made.

“There were studios who wanted to make it but with another director or without [star] Terrence Howard,” says Mr. Brewer, dressed casually in flannel and work boots.

He took comfort in the path Sylvester Stallone forged to make “Rocky” in 1976. No studio wanted him to star in his own script, but Mr. Stallone insisted no one else would play the Italian Stallion.

” ‘Rocky’ is a very important movie to ‘Hustle & Flow,’ ” he says. “It’s one of the greatest American movies. I wanted to make American movies, and particularly American Southern movies.”

All the while, Mr. Brewer was flying back and forth from his home in Memphis to Los Angeles to meet with movie executives, leaving his wife and young son behind.

” ‘Black Snake Moan’ was me dealing with the anxiety, the fear, the need to be back home and be tied to some place,” he says. “People ask me if I’m Sam Jackson in the movie, but unfortunately I’m the hot girl.”

Mr. Brewer’s first two films — he also wrote and directed the low-budget indie feature “The Poor and Hungry” — display a keen sense of music. He says that his family moved often while he was growing up but that his father made sure music remained in his life.

“It was very important to him to keep the Memphis music in my ears,” says Mr. Brewer. [His next film will delve into what he calls “outlaw country music.”]

The lead character in “Black Snake Moan,” a local blues legend, isn’t as morally challenged as “Hustle & Flow’s” Djay, but Mr. Brewer contends some of our best artists live in ways most people would find offensive.

“Do we want saints to be our artists?” he asks.

Some critics bristled at how he made a pimp into a figure worthy of our respect, if only a fraction of it.

“At every opportunity I went against the stereotype,” he says of the Djay character. “No pageantry, no diamonds on his fingers. I don’t think there are many kids who saw ‘Hustle & Flow’ and said, ‘Man, I wanna be like that.’ ”

Mr. Brewer may deal in seriously adult material, but he knows his films aren’t meant for impressionable eyes. He doesn’t let his 5-year-old son watch R-rated movies yet, but some elements of his day job can’t help but seep through.

“We keep him away from anything inappropriate, but he likes that ‘Whoop That Trick’ song [from ‘Hustle & Flow’],” he says with a guilty grin.

Christian Toto

DCIFF off and running

Area film lovers will be very busy during the next 10 days. The DC Independent Film Festival yesterday kicked off its ninth year of showcasing the best of low-budget animated, short and feature films. The event runs until March 11, and with more than 100 films and 20 panels, indie film fans will barely have time to catch their breath and compare notes each night.

You might not have heard of many films on the schedule, but the festival’s programmers have made some good choices in previous years. Past premieres include an Oscar-winning short “The Accountant”; a Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer”; and the critically acclaimed 2000 feature “Diamond Men.”

All events are conveniently held in one location, Auditorium 26 of the University of the District of Columbia at 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW, next to the Van Ness-UDC Metro stop. Employers of film fans will be happy to discover that weekday screenings take place in the evening. The fun begins with a happy hour each night at 6.

Today is Advocacy Day, with two panels this morning on Capitol Hill exploring how to stimulate independent film production. The National WhistleBlowers Center presents an “Inside Politics” series of films tonight at 6:30, including Michael Gaylin’s 15-minute short “Intelligence.” Described as a “Kubrickian nightmare,” the film shows three detainees awaiting questioning in an Abu Ghraib-like prison; only one is a true terrorist.

Tomorrow at 5 p.m., black filmmakers get the spotlight, including Anthony Lover with his feature film “My Brother” starring “Ugly Betty” co-star Vanessa L. Williams. Most of the festival’s films are American, but on Wednesday, Mediterranean films get a night to themselves.

Other groups of screenings are more creatively themed. “Life’s Curve Balls” is the topic Sunday night at 6:55 p.m. The feature film is Nicholas Peterson’s debut, “Intellectual Property,” a “Kafkaesque story about an inventor who must protect his inventions from becoming casualties of the Cold War.”

On March 11 at 11:30 a.m., the focus is on documentaries, all of which were made by District filmmakers. “The Way I See It” is an autobiography of the director’s mother’s first cousin, Dr. Henry Abrams, an ophthalmologist and friend of Albert Einstein who removed the eyes from the scientist’s corpse. The rest of the day is also devoted to local directors, with shorts at 2:45 p.m. and features, mostly works in progress, at 4.

The festival ends that night with “I Trust You to Kill Me,” which follows “24” star Kiefer Sutherland as he takes his independent record label act Rocco DeLuca & the Burden out on the road.

If you want to do more than just watch, attend one of the festival’s many weekend seminars. Topics include writing and directing for the screen, music composition, editing, animation and postproduction. They’re $25 each, and an all-seminar pass is $150.

More details can be found on the DC Independent Film Festival Web site at www.dciff.org.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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