As an old pimp sage remarks to up-and-comer Goldie in the Seventies blaxploitation opus The Mack: "Pimpin's been goin' on since the beginning of time, and it's gonna continue straight-ahead--till somebody up there turns out the lights on this small planet."
An astute observation, you might say. But while prostitution may have existed for thousands of years, we can suppose with relative certainty that the pimps of ancient Babylon didn't quite resemble the cane-sporting, cape-wearing caricatures of The Mack or Willie Dynamite.
Indeed, it's the Black Power-fueled early Seventies, the era of both blaxploitation and Iceberg Slim's venerable players' manual Pimp, The Story of My Life, that we have to thank for the outlandish "modern pimp" aesthetic: The pimp as showman, the ultimate purveyor of gaudy taste at the so-called Players Ball. It's a world explored in both the recent HBO special Pimps Up! Hos Down! and the Hughes Brothers' documentary American Pimp, the latter being a surprisingly textured take on the nation's most flamboyant salesmen of "booty."
The Hugheses themselves are something of an enigma in American film. Their debut feature, Menace II Society (1993), was an indie phenom and the most potent in the gang-banger genre popularized by Boyz N the Hood. After much critical acclaim (the twin brothers were only 20 when they co-directed the film), Allen and Albert Hughes were deemed the industry's Negroes du jour along with Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn) and Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat). Despite the critical drubbing accorded the siblings' sophomore effort, Dead Presidents, that film was a handsomely mounted period epic that effortlessly juxtaposed the lives of soldiers at war in the jungles of Vietnam with the psychological war taking place simultaneously in the urban jungle of America's ghettos.
And then the brothers vanished, only to resurface years later with this very un-Hollywood, low budget arthouse documentary on the most unlikely of subjects. I mean, does anyone really give a damn about the philosophies of pimps? Scratch beneath the surface, however, and it becomes clear that there couldn't be a more perfect time for the particular pimpology of this picture. As hip-hop culture has blossomed out of its early Nineties gangsta funk and into the "jiggy" genre of platinum jewelry-wearing, Cristall-swilling pimp wannabes, the tales of such street griots as Rosebudd, Bishop Don Magic Juan, and Fillmore Slim appear almost akin to a Roc-a-Fella track. In fact, the pimps profiled in the film seem mainly to serve as a backdrop to the larger themes of societal inequality and America's interrelated obsessions with sex, misogyny, and cash.
American Pimp begins with a smattering of interviews with "average Americans" (or, as the pimps playfully refer to them, squares) who pointedly reveal their impressions of pimps. The interview subjects are all white, and their remarks range from ironic (one man flanked by high-profile stockbrokers deems pimps to be "manipulators") to racist ("a guy with a big Afro and gold chains...") to downright absurd ("like Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch"). The directors' ensuing indictment of such racial and cultural hypocrisy seems well founded, particularly once the film visits its lone white pimp, Dennis Hof, whose management of a legal brothel in Nevada makes him no less a societal burden than his black contemporaries. ("I don't consider myself a pimp," he remarks sarcastically--while admitting in the next breath that he's in the business of "selling pussy.") In fact, Hof and his ilk are the true players of the pimp game. Some cursory research reveals that only 15 percent of sales are made by the street hookers whom the film's characters claim to control, the rest being handled by quasi-legitimate businessmen such as Hof, who run the thinly veiled brothels and massage parlors that sell more sex in a day than most pimps will hustle in a lifetime.
Clearly the street pimps are bottom feeders in the prostitution racket, and yet the Hugheses treat them like kings, which makes the film seem somewhat out of touch with reality. It doesn't help that the "'ho" perspective is scarcely delivered through a few short interviews with a seemingly stoned brothel employee and a pair of New York hookers who seem to live in mortal fear of their pimp. ("Yeah, he'll beat my ass if he needs to," giggles one drunken teenage hooker. "But he's probably the only friend I have." Five minutes later, she's throwing up in a toilet.)
As for the pimps, however unrealistic many of their Seventies exploits might seem today, their stories do provide some insight into how it's possible for them to manipulate the minds of disenfranchised women with low self-esteem. The fact remains that, regardless of how many ugly johns the St. Paul Police Department posts on its Web site of prostitution arrests, there will always be clients for street hookers. After all, ours is a consumer culture wherein anything, including sex, can be bought and sold.
Perhaps the most provocative idea in American Pimp is that the film's macks are simply minor players--or scapegoats, as the Hugheses tell it--in a game that goes well beyond pimping per se. Sitting on his silk sheets, one of the film's central pimps leaves us to ponder this relative profundity: "Man, even if you look in the Bible, you'd see that Mary Magdalene was a 'ho. Jesus knew that."
American Pimp starts Friday at U Film Society; (612) 627-4430.