American Pimp

on June 09, 2000 by Ray Greene
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Stylishly made but thematically confused, the Hughes Bros.' "American Pimp" strives mightily to redeem and humanize the street corner hustler as an icon of black sexuality after decades of pop culture distortion. Tracking the careers of a half-dozen or so "flesh merchants" with names like "C-Note," "Rosebudd" and "Filmore Slim," "American Pimp" uses eyewitness interviews, nightcrawling surveillance cameras and clips from such seminal blaxploitation titles as "Willie Dynamite" and "The Mack" in an amusing but ultimately failed attempt to demythologize what the Hughes would have viewers believe is the racist caricature of blackness the American pimp has become.
"American Pimp" starts off promisingly, crosscutting between its various interview subjects, each of whom has the easy charisma of the born media star. Given their heavy reliance on interviews, it's fortunate the Hughes have chosen such loquacious men as the voices for their topic. As the pimps themselves tell us repeatedly, the successful street pimp has to be a good talker, and "American Pimp" benefits from its interviewees' gifts for gab.
The successful pimp also has to be a professional seducer, and the Hughes have perhaps too readily succumbed to the charms of these wily but exploitative men, whom the filmmakers seem to unabashedly admire. Debatable points are made and go unchallenged; for example, when one pimp articulates a laughable conspiracy theory that prostitution became illegal as a way of undermining black entrepreneurship, the editorial montage is actually designed to support his views. A few prostitutes are used as secondary interviews, but their comments are generally included as paeans to the manipulative prowess of the men who profit by their efforts, although ominous references to pimp-on-whore physical violence begin to creep into the picture by film's end.
The Hughes can't seem to make up their minds about how they want us to feel toward their subject. Are these men economic freedom fighters or ruthless exploiters? "American Pimp" seems drawn to the former conclusion, but so intimidated by the possibility for feminist backlash that it is reluctantly forced into a half-hearted embrace of the latter.
Nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than in the way "American Pimp" utilizes archival materials. Outrageous and cartoonish movie pimps are routinely held up to ridicule, accompanied by interview excerpts in voiceover which emphasize how professionally offensive the true "players" of pimpdom found all that Huggy Bear nonsense in the media of the '70s. But the Hughes undermine their own point nearly every time they show an old photo of one of their subjects at work in the bad old days--usually clad in platform shoes and animal patterned suits that would make Dolemite and Superfly seem like midwestern bankers by comparison.
Is the iconic "blaxploitation"-era image of the American pimp a white hallucination or unvarnished reality? The Hughes have made a movie which toys with that topic, but which ultimately can't seem to make up its mind. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes. Produced by Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes and Kevin Messick. Documentary. No distribution set. Not yet rated. Running time: 86 min.
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