“People got parts. You just gotta get inside.”
A guy like John Singleton doesn’t just finance independent films like Hustle & Flow without first understanding the talent it’s writer/director possesses to ensure the level of artistic success it may achieve. In the case of Craig Brewer, that calling card was a micro-budgeted work shot on Hi8 and D8 video in Memphis, TN entitled The Poor and Hungry. It’s a piece that foreshadows everything he has done since whether it be Hustle‘s sympathetically misunderstood lead, an ability to find the perfect music to authentically enhance his visuals a la Black Snake Moan, or show the love he has for Memphis’ culture most epitomized with his MTV web series “$5 Cover”. After a decade of obscurity, Brewer has decided to self-distribute it to the masses so we too can see what Singleton saw way back when.
It’s a tale on the fringe that follows a car thief and a hustler doing what they can to make ends meet and survive the life they were born into. Despite stereotypical exteriors, however, their hearts can’t help from providing hope for the possibilities of their futures. Yes, the former’s Eli Foote (Eric Tate) has embraced that his imposing physique instills fear in those who don’t know him and the latter’s Harper (Lindsey Roberts) has learned to cope with the reality her personality isn’t quite everyone’s cup of tea, but they have each other’s backs and there’s a purity to that fact. So when Eli meets a girl who makes him want to attend a classical music performance, Harper’s right by his side so he isn’t entering her very different and somewhat scary world alone.
The twist is that Eli would never have officially met Amanda (Lake Latimer) if not for his part in stealing her car the night before. Prone to anxiety attacks due to a conscience he’s not sure how he came to own considering his lack of role models or moral centeredness growing up, he’s reconciled the act as long as he isn’t performing the crime. He only barely escaped the law his last attempt, so boss Mr. Coles (John Still) has him acting as lookout this time around so his record remains clean. Coles’ chop shop steals the cars, strips them down, and turns them over to the authorities so they can buy their pink slips for cheap, put them back together, and sell them for profit. Eli provides the face to go to auction and keep the circle complete.
What he never could have counted on, however, was his victim’s inability to let go of her car causing her to be at the junkyard when he arrived. Already smitten with Amanda after watching her play the cello through an open window during the theft, he can’t help himself from offering her a ride home. It’s an act of kindness she hasn’t experienced much of lately and one to cause the unlikely pair to cultivate a friendship. Brewer isn’t interested in telling some back alley fairytale wherein the girl from the right side of the tracks saves her rough-edged beau, though. Each of his characters have something eating at their souls to provide a darkness they may never be able to outrun and despite glimpses of optimistic love, the harshness of life oftentimes proves victorious.
Shot with a guerilla style over two years to keep production costs around twenty grand, Brewer chose to shoot black and white because it captured the essence of the story he was sharing. It was a purely aesthetic decision that allowed his actors to captivate with gritty, raw performances worthy of the Memphis he and everyone else involved knew. There is an electricity running throughout as a result whether during an expository sequence of three boys back-flipping down the street, an unfiltered tour through a working strip club, or the eponymous café P&H providing its patrons and its proprietor Wanda Wilson as a sage, maternal voice to these kids who never stopped being the hustlers they were in their youth. If you’ve seen Hustle & Flow you’ll understand how much it owes to the experience had here.
Brewer gives us a look inside this world without feeling a need to glamorize it or pretend the lives of those caught within it aren’t tough. Colorful characters like Cowboy Urles’ (T.C. Sharpe) pimp arrive to contrast the cold-blooded Coles, adding comic relief and a sunny disposition to what could easily turn out okay if not for a mistake the invincibility of premature success can provide. Just when things look up, something is bound to balance the scales. Sometimes our actions can be forgiven and sometimes they can’t, it’s all a matter of whether or not you can escape the damage they’ve wrought long enough to wipe the slate clean. Eli, Harper, and Amanda each hoped they could, but rebirth comes at a steep price and sacrifices must be made.
This trio’s fate is but one aspect to its evolution as life and death occur with a blind eye. How we choose to spend the interim is what truly matters. Understanding the Amandas of the world are just as downtrodden and defeated as the Harpers isn’t easy until you look beyond clichéd stereotype. We all have baggage and prejudice because we think we’re different from everyone else—better or worse. Watching Roberts’ express to Latimer how her cello’s song reverberated through her chest is powerful, pushing everything aside besides mankind’s capacity to feel beauty in our bones. And no matter where they end up by the conclusion, seeing smiles of pure joy on all as Amanda teaches Harper the “Cup Song” (yes, Anna Kendrick‘s Pitch Perfect phenomenon) epitomizes how art is and always will be the great equalizer.
 Eric Tate (left) as “Eli” and Lindsey Roberts as “Harper” in the film “The Poor & Hungry”.
 Lake Latimer (left) as “Amanda” and Eric Tate as “Eli” in the film “The Poor & Hungry”.
 Wanda Wilson as herself in the film “The Poor & Hungry”.