TORONTO--If the Toronto International Film Festival is known for works of grand cinematic scope like “The Master” and “Cloud Atlas,” it also has another filmic side: the one where true stories are told about colorful personalities.
Perhaps none comes more colorful than Iceberg Slim, the late pimp-turned-bestselling-author who helped create the genre known as street lit and had a profound effect on hip-hop and its artists. One of those artists is the musician and actor Ice-T, who credits his career and his life to the street scribe.
Ice-T, who himself acknowledges a criminal past, first discovered Slim in high school -- “You’re reading all these books from American literature and you can’t relate and then you discover that yeah, this is the lingo.” He continue to identify with him afterward, both in his street life and in the music career that followed. When he became a rapper he had many of Slim’s books on his shelf and would often hand copies to people who came in for meetings.
Ice-T is sitting at the restaurant of an upscale Toronto hotel, sporting chains and a leather jacket and perhaps his most notable accessory, his outspokenness. (On Snoop Dogg’s reggae reinvention: “Snoop Lion? Come on. Give that guy enough weed and he’ll be Snoop Opera Singer.”) Ice-T has come to one of the world’s best-known film festivals to exhibit “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” a documentary he executive produced that was directed by the rapper’s longtime manager, Jorge Hinojosa.
“Iceberg Slim,” which is seeking U.S. distribution, is a passion project through-and-through. Ice-T and Hinojosa spent years developing it, tracking down family members and shaping it into a story they felt would do justice to the author’s legacy.
The result is an excellent primer about the man born Robert Beck, who went from pimp to convict and then, with the help of his wife and co-writer, bestselling author with 1969’s “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” (Slim died in 1992; his books are not only still popular but they’re studied with the rigor of a Ralph Ellison.) Through interviews with members of his family and others close to him, “Slim” teases out a portrait of a troubled soul and the way art can be used to redeem it. If there’s a larger-than-life quality to the story, it’s because Slim really lived that large.
Though Ice-T is clearly an admirer of Slim’s, there is also a measure of objectivity in his exploration of a man who was far from perfect and hardly a role model.
In many ways, Ice-T said, to tell Slim’s story is to tell his own story too. “There are some spooky similarities. Iceberg Slim also led a life of crime, then left that life of crime to be an artist and didn’t go back.” His own nickname, Ice-T is quick to point out, came about as a compression of Iceberg Slim and his real first name of Tracy, not as a signifier of a chilled caffeinated beverage.
Later that night, Ice-T will take the stage at a downtown Toronto club, where he will rap and poke fun at his image as a cop in the “Law and Order” franchise. (“I’m just a very good actor,” said the man who counts the song “Cop Killer” as one of his hits.) The musician said in the interview that despite his mainstream success, Iceberg Slim’s brand of street swagger remains not very far below the surface.
“I’m controlling a lot more violence than the average person,” he said. “The instincts are all there. I walk into a room and I can see all the alarm systems and I know how to take it.”
Slim knew that life once too, and just as ‘bestselling-author’ probably never crossed his mind when he was fronting for prostitutes, Ice-T might have also found it hard, while he was waving a gun, to imagine himself as an E! reality star.
“People know me, they love me. Ice-T and ‘Law and Order’ and all that..., and in my 20s you wanted to incarcerate me for life,” he said. “I made this movie because I wanted them to know his story, which is my story.”
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