REVIEW: Blaxploitation Verite? Hughes Brothers' "American Pimp"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/6.09.00) -- You can't make this shit up, you know what I'm sayin'? And that's part of the allure of the Hughes Brothers' documentary, "American Pimp," a strange, often funny and shockingly frank portrait of urban black pimps whose lives are given to more self-parody and caricature than any 1970s blaxploitation movie could ever be. Although the stakes are anything but humorous.
The Hughes brothers -- twins Allen and Albert, known for "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents" -- spent two years, $100,000 of their own money and gobs of 16mm film stock to create this portrait of what is portrayed as, sadly, one of the few positions of respect in many contemporary black communities. As one pimp says, "There's not a bill that you have or that you can accumulate that can't be paid off in one night." Another says that role models in his neighborhood didn't wear three-piece suits or carry a briefcase; instead, the most self-confident, assured black men on his block had three women hanging on his arm, and gold chains around his neck.
The filmmakers have gained unprecedented access. More than 20 interviews of pimps and prostitutes from around the country made the final cut of this 86-minute documentary. It seems like showing your face and giving your real name (albeit a "street" name) is not the best idea if you're involved in a frankly illegal activity, so it is a testament to the Hughes' skills as communicators, not just directors, that so much is laid out for the viewer.
Apparently pimpmobiles -- those customized luxury Cadillacs -- and the outlandish, colorful clothing in such blaxploitation films as Michael Campus' "The Mack" (1973) and Gilbert Moses' "Willie Dynamite" (1974) are listed as influential films to modern pimps. The cars and clothes are considered necessary accoutrements for doing business. Alligator shoes are Sketchers for pimps: they give them instant style and attitude.
One pimp, named Payroll, is known for wearing all-green outfits. As he notes, there is a layered meaning to it: "Green for the money, and 'go' for the honey." We also meet legendary San Francisco pimp Fillmore Slim, now in his 70s and loaded with pictures from the past; Versace-clad Kenny Redd, a youngster in Washington, D.C. who calls his prostitutes "bitches" about twice in every sentence and speaks quickly ("My mouth is an Uzi, and I'm armed and dangerous with a double-clip," he helpfully explains). Others go by the handles C-Note, Bishop Don Magic Juan, Gorgeous Dre and Charm.
"American Pimp" is alluring because, let's face it, sex sells -- this year alone, the documentaries "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story'' and "The Girl Next Door" (about porn star Stacy Valentine) have been released -- but there is also an inherent attraction to an "ordered" society. The Hughes' present pimping as a legitimate subculture, with rigid rules and regulations -- its own brand of law and order.
And the directors do a great job of disguising the fact this is really a bunch of talking heads; interviews are conducted while pimps are cruising their "track" (territory) in their big cars, or while getting a haircut (humorously, Redd is shot from between his legs looking up), and the editing is crisp.
Where "American Pimp" gets into trouble is in the lack of a clear woman's point of view. Only four prostitutes are interviewed, and none attack the pimps' policy of taking all of their money. The pimps present this as simple maintenance; Gorgeous Dre points out he picks up all his "whores'" "food, clothes, shelter and medical bills, so of course 100 percent is mine" and another suggests that left to their own devices, women would work only a few days a week and spend the money they make at the mall on their off days. "I make them work every day, and they don't have time to spend nuthin'." Sure, and they got nuthin' to spend.
There is also the hint of beatings and sometimes murder, especially when pimps are "knockin'" on each other (stealing other pimps' prostitutes), but no incidents are described and the Hughes brothers, at least in the final edit, don't ask tough questions on those subjects.
So is "American Pimp" an accurate portrayal or a sanitized, pro-pimp version? It's hard to say. They're fascinating characters, all right, but not people you want to meet in person. On celluloid is as close as you want to get.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing film critic for indieWIRE and a critic and feature writer for the San Francisco Examiner.]