Photo by D. Stevens

Seven years ago, Albert and Allen Hughes’ first film took a savage and unsentimental — and ultimately soulless — look at thug life in L.A. Menace II Society, a piece of irredeemable urban pornography, solidified a new genre of youth flick in which authentic street language and de rigueur bloodshed spelled box-office success. The movie did so well that a faux-liberal, racially cowed Hollywood hailed the Hugheses as bold new voices in black cinema, and Menace became
the glowering muse for a spate of ghetto films that defined a ruthless ’90s version of blaxploitation.

American Pimp follows in this sordid tradition. Credit the Hugheses for plunging headfirst into a deeply taboo topic, but they’re doing it for the wrong reasons and thus playing into the worst of public stereotypes, namely that all black men are hustlers. Menace at least had an element of moral tension, however perfunctory, but because American Pimp is a documentary, the Hugheses dispense with any such niceties of conscience. Here they present pimps of all stripes — and polka dots and brim hats and platform shoes — old pimps and young, active and retired, all of them as hard and glittering and impenetrable as their copious jewelry and processed hair. They are caricatures, and seem to know it, but one of the film’s many failings is that it doesn’t
explore that tragic self-knowledge. A few of these guys make mention of their decrepit childhood neighborhoods, how they didn’t grow up living next door to guys with briefcases, or how they saw sexual exploitation up close at very early ages. Far from expanding on this, the film follows the revels of the
Players’ Ball in Las Vegas, an informal hustler convention where ho’s shake their booties and kiss the unwieldy rings of superpimps as if genuflecting to the pope.

The Hugheses have an uncanny gift for knowing — and growing — titillation: They know we’re not going to stop looking. There is a certain outrageous appeal to Gorgeous Dre, Fillmore Slim and company, with their gold teeth and patent-leather getups, and the filmmakers capture the surface panache well enough: the nonstop patter, the bravado, the pride the pimps take in their carefully hung Versace suits. These men are vulgar, but so frankly vulgar and sincere about their utter lack of values that they almost manage to be sympathetic characters. Some see what they do as social service. “I took a bitch off welfare and helped her out,” explains one burly pimp who goes by the fairy-tale name of Charm. “Her mama was happy.”

Audience empathy might be tough to elicit here, and the Hugheses are hardly up to the task — they’re too busy thinking these macks are cool. Like the rest of us, they have a prurient fascination with black men as urban
outlaws, the last true purveyors of a pure
American id long compromised by modern living, political correctness, Prozac. The pimp still has contempt for authority, slaps women around as a matter of course, carries real money. He’s the spiritual equivalent of eating steak and smoking cigars.

Of course, there is much more to it than that. American Pimp never plumbs the embitterment of these men, their sense of being shut out of the American Dream, or the vengeance they exact. It never really exposes the ugly seams of the seamiest American myths the pimps are only too willing to perpetuate: that black men live to prey sexually on white women, that they are natural-born criminals and margin crawlers, that they are as threatening in our imagination as they are
impotent in our social reality. Such issues are far too complex and unsettling for most of us — including the Hughes brothers — to address. What they might want us to think is shocking and revolutionary is, absent any context, merely sensational and hardly new. I came out of American Pimp with a white friend who said with clear embarrassment, “Nobody white should see this. It’ll set us all back a hundred years.”

You can convey a grand “fuck you” to white America, you can even stage a freak show, but if you do it without humanizing blacks, only they will get screwed, and the rest of America won’t get the message. That, as the Hughes brothers say, is Pimpology 101.

AMERICAN PIMP | Directed by ALLEN AND ALBERT HUGHES | Produced by the HUGHES BROTHERS and KEVIN MESSICK | Released by Seventh Art Releasing At Landmark’s Nuart

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