“Rap is coming back to the South,” enthuses Shelby (D.J. Qualls), a geeky white boy who, at this moment in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, is smoking a joint while taking a break from recording a rap song written and performed by a black Memphis pimp. Full of genial stoner verbosity, the moonlighting sound engineer launches into a lyrical pop-culture disquisition, the gist of which is that the blues, a musical form born in the South, was the direct antecedent of rap, which, after many delays and peregrinations, is finally returning home.

To fans of rap (which I should admit that I’m not), Shelby’s thesis will hardly be novel. Hip hop with a distinct Southern accent–known as crunk–has been booming of late. What is novel about this statement of pop-cultural (and, please note, trans-racial) Southern pride is the sense that it hints at a related idea: the potential for an independent Southern cinema as powerful, popular and artistically distinctive as the South’s popular music has always been.

In the 26 years since I reviewed the first bona fide Southern films I encountered, at the 1979 North Carolina Film Festival, I’ve returned repeatedly to this alluring will o’ the wisp, the notion of a culturally rooted Southern cinema. Artists who’ve been its primary exponents, such as North Carolina’s Ross McElwee and Florida’s Victor Nunez, often appeal to the analogy of literature, asking, “Why not Southern filmmaking in the way that Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner exemplify Southern writing?” Craig Brewer, to my knowledge, is the first filmmaker to make a major case for a different analogy: Why not films as Southern in spirit and flavor as the music of Otis Redding, Elvis Presley or Ludacris?

This quietly radical idea had its first public airing at January’s Sundance Film Festival. As I noted in an earlier Indy article (“A Southern Sundance,” Feb. 9, www.indyweek. com/durham/2005-02-09/ae.html), Sundance’s programmers cited a trend when they announced this year’s slate: of the 16 films in the dramatic competition, four were by Southern filmmakers and seemed to embody fresh ways of looking at the region, divorced from the usual clichés and caricatures. The trend’s two evident epicenters were North Carolina, represented by Phil Morrison’s Junebug and Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, and Memphis, the point of origin for Hustle & Flow and Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue.

At a Sundance panel discussion (which I moderated) concerning the new Southern films, all of the filmmakers voiced passionate interest in telling stories about the region. The conversation ranged widely, from ambient details of Southern life like train whistles (there’s one in the first scene of Hustle & Flow) to the challenge posed by Southern stereotypes (the filmmakers seemed to think these weren’t to be avoided exactly, but played with, undercut, reexamined). Brewer, the one of the four I wasn’t acquainted with previously, turned out to be a genial, self-deprecating 30-something with a shaved head and beard who was extremely funny in some moments, thoughtful and articulate in others.

Also the only one in this group who currently lives in the South (the other three are New York residents), Brewer seems determined to remain based in Memphis. He and his movie stood apart from their Southern counterparts in other ways as well. The other works, excellent films all, seemed to exemplify the literary model noted above, and, like most of the films bought at Sundance, were picked up by small indie distributors (with luck, all three will be seen locally in the coming months). Hustle & Flow, on the other hand, risked everything on its musical paradigm, and turned out to be Sundance’s one mega-hit, selling for $9 million to Paramount and earning Brewer a three-picture deal.

The movie’s success was the double-edged kind, however. On one hand, the film was so well liked by Sundance crowds that it handily copped the festival’s Audience Award. On the other hand, it left critics and other filmmakers noticeably divided. I walked out of one of its screenings with a prominent critic who would soon label the film “rubbish” in print. At the moment, though, she simply fumed, “It’s a Warner Brothers musical from the ’30s!”

Rather than denying the analogy, I would ask: So what’s wrong with that? For some critics, of course, old Hollywood genres are not to be upheld except with the tongs of irony or satire, and “populist” must never be confused with “popular.” Yet what was most troublesome here, perhaps, was the context. Sundance likes to be seen as the staging ground for the latest generation of “edgy,” adventurous indie art films. And Hustle & Flow is not–repeat: is not, does not even attempt to be–anyone’s definition of an art film. It aims at being a pop film, and by every measure visible prior to its official release, it’s a resounding success at that.

Nevertheless, among certain cultural arbiters, Brewer’s breakthrough is sure to stand accused of multiple counts of political incorrectness. For one thing, its protagonist comprises a new dramatic archetype–the Pimp with a Heart of Gold–of patently dubious social value. For another, by depicting rap music as a route out of the ghetto’s dead end, it arguably endorses an escapist fantasy of the very sort that helps keeps ghetto kids entrapped. And finally, this provocative view of contemporary African-American experience comes to us from a white director.

All of those qualities might well damn a typical, big-budget Hollywood movie aimed at “urban” (the industry’s codeword for black) audiences, but Hustle & Flow is something else again: a new kind of Southern independent film, one notably brought to the screen under the auspices of two prominent L.A.-based black filmmakers. According to the movie’s lore, producers John Singleton (the auteur of Boyz N the Hood) and Stephanie Allain went to extraordinary lengths to make Brewer’s vision a reality. Allain sold her house to keep the project afloat. And Singleton, after the major studios declined to back the film without a rap star in the lead role, dug into his own pockets for the budget.

That damn-the-torpedoes commitment recalls the legendary beginnings of Quentin Tarantino, and Hustle & Flow indeed kicks off with a kind of Tarantino-esque flourish as sad-eyed pimp DJay (Terrence Howard) gives ho Nola (Taryn Manning) a vernacular lecture on what separates man from beast (in brief: self-consciousness) before selling her young white ass to the first scraggly john that wheels up. When Nola flounces from DJay’s car over to the john’s, and the camera follows her with a lyrically insouciant, miniskirt-level tracking shot, you know you’re in the hands of a filmmaker whose sense of style is both coolly assured and edged with a droll, deadpan wit.

In a Tarantino film, this kind of raucous cum pop-philosophical opening would lead us quickly into a realm of gleeful postmodern artifice. Brewer, however, vaults into the mythic without ever abandoning everyday, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Memphis. In the film’s first minutes, we’re treated to an automotive tour of the city’s seamier districts that’s equal parts unblinking documentary and unabashed love letter to the filmmaker’s frazzled hometown. Everything that comes later retains this sense of determined localism, leaving the story’s portion of conventional fantasy planted in a loam of physical and social specificity.

DJay, Brewer’s bedraggled hero, is beset with a specific form of soul sickness that he himself likens to a midlife crisis. If you didn’t know that pimps suffer midlife crises, then you perhaps can’t imagine what the potential cure for this one looks like. DJay himself only has a glimmer of it when he runs into Key (Anthony Anderson), a friend from high school who has gone straight but whose sound recording business hasn’t fulfilled his dream of becoming a record producer. Catalyzed by the prospective return of Skinny Black (Ludacris), a local rapper who left Memphis for stardom, DJay, assisted by Key, begins laying down tracks that give musical expression to the manifold frustrations of the pimp life.

Yes, the story archetype here recalls ’30s musicals and countless other spunk-over-adversity sagas (on Charlie Rose recently, Brewer said he was an ’80s kid who grew up on the likes of Flashdance). All of this admittedly limits whatever claims might be made for the film’s originality. But Hustle & Flow‘s real distinction comes from other assets. Its performances, especially Terrence Howard’s charismatic turn as DJay, are as strong as I’ve seen in any American film lately. Brewer’s direction displays both subtlety and compelling confidence. And the music–even to a non-fan like myself–is extraordinarily infectious.

But the quality that ultimately makes the movie so intriguing is more ineffable. Call it a sincerity that’s rooted in both conviction and place. Brewer has described Hustle & Flow quite simply as “a Memphis film,” and listening to him talk, I’ve gotten a sense of that city’s mythology as a distinct subsection of the South’s general pattern of grandeur-defeat-resurrection. Though Memphis had its era of Olympian glory, as the home of Elvis and Sun Studios and countless rock, soul and country demigods, it has since fallen, a downturn symbolized not just by fading musical fortunes but by the lingering stain of Martin Luther King’s murder.

Brewer dreams that Memphis might rise to the heights again, aided by cinema and another fusion of creative energies that crosses the barriers presented by genres, races, classes and geographies. This is an alluring vision, at once optimistic and unapologetically quixotic. It will be fascinating to see if Brewer can achieve anything like what it presupposes: a Southern pop cinema with real integrity, one that sells tickets without selling out.