Friday June 9, 2000
"American Pimp" is as effective for what it doesn't say as for what it does, inviting the audience to draw its own conclusions. The Hughes brothers, Allan and Albert, makers of the hits "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," spent two years traveling to 15 cities and interviewing 30 pimps--only one of them white--and have come up with a documentary as revealing as it is disturbing, one that engrosses as it at times repulses, a film that shifts from one moment to the next from the outrageously funny to the just plain outrageous.
Wisely, the Hughes brothers don't judge--they inspire trust in their subjects and get these men and some of their women to open up about their lives and their profession. They set up their stories with a prologue composed of man- and woman-on-the-street opinions of pimps gathered mainly from white people, whose reactions are, not surprisingly, profoundly negative. As we meet one pimp after the next the Hughes brothers adroitly intersperse clips from such early '70s blaxploitation pictures as "The Mack" and "Willie Dynamite" and stills from the landmark book "Gentlemen of Leisure" and bridge the sequences with music of the era. ("The Mack," which stars Max Julien, will screen at the Nuart at midnight tonight and June 16.)
In his unforgettable memoir "Pimp" the late Iceberg Slim said if you grew up poor in Chicago's black ghetto, pimping was one of the few ways for an enterprising young man to make money. Virtually all the pimps the Hughes brothers talk to are entrepreneurs to the core, and that they chose pimping as their avenue to financial success reflects the limited options they believe society offers them. Indeed, Danny Brown, a handsome middle-aged Angeleno who has forsaken pimping for a career as a blues singer, theorizes that black pimping began when female ex-slaves were encouraged by their men to charge their former masters for what they had previously enjoyed by droit du seigneur. Slavery also fomented the enduring "Mandingo Mystique" of black males as supermen, sustained to this day in the world of sports and entertainment, other long-standing arenas of opportunity for African American men.
The pimps all say they started early, often in their teens, and that pimping was something that they fell into naturally, following in the footsteps of male relatives and neighbors. (One of the reasons the Hughes brothers were inspired to make their documentary was because a member of their family "dabbled in the pimporial arts.")
There's an intriguing difference between the older men, now mainly retired, and their younger counterparts: The older generation tend to be better-looking and sharper dressers, some of them carrying on to this day stereotypical exaggerated gaudy attire and flashy jewelry and fancy cars. Whether extroverted or understated in personality and style, these men all project a strong, forceful presence necessary to attract and hold on to a stable of women.
Which brings us to the real heart of the matter and how the Hughes brothers have trusted in the power of implication. These pimps are hardheaded businessmen and take pride in being men of their word, but what this inevitably means is that they come to regard the women they control as, as one man bluntly puts it, "products." What is most devastating about the film is how the pimp-whore relationship has warped these men's view of women.
They all talk about how much they do for their women, how well they take care of them, how they are there for them, but they might as well be talking about workhorses. The dehumanizing aspect of pimping is what's scariest about the Hughes brothers' investigation--so powerful the filmmakers realize they need only to record it. As for the much-vaunted protection a pimp offers, it is limited at best, and a number of the men admit to having at least one prostitute in their stable who has been murdered by a john.
We don't meet many of the women, but most seem to be white, not all that pretty and not very intelligent. The film's two black prostitutes, however, are attractive, smart and without illusions. One has opted for the greater security of a legal Nevada brothel, operated by the film's sole white pimp. This man makes a solid case for legalized prostitution, yet on a personal level lacks the dignity, however cruel, of his black counterparts working the big-city streets.
American Pimp, 2000. Unrated. A Seventh Art Releasing presentation. Directors the Hughes brothers. Producers Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes and Kevin Messick in association with Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records. Camera Albert Hughes. Sound Allen Hughes. Editor Doug Pray. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times