erik lundegaard

American Pimp

American Pimp (2000)

Near the beginning of “American Pimp,” a new documentary from the Hughes Brothers, several white people, looking middle-to-upper class, give their opinion on the title subject.

It’s supposed to be semi-comic—what do these white folks know about pimping that they didn’t learn from “Starsky and Hutch”?—but many of their comments, ranging from “lazy” to “manipulative,” are confirmed in the next 90 minutes. The dozen or so pimps we get to know could easily fit into the cheapest blaxploitation flick.

At the same time, the Hughes Brothers, whose feature films include “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents,” aren’t just perpetuating stereotypes here. Each pimp is distinct.

Some are unintentionally hilarious. Most are retired. None is remorseful. There’s Rosebudd, who grows wistful when he talks of his first whore. “It’s like your first kiss,” he says. “She was the first one who paid me.”

Bishop Don Magic Juan of Chicago has his own calendar—which includes photos of himself with Marion Berry and Ike Turner. He visits with his mother and sister, who seem proud of his success.

Then there’s Fillmore Slim, the granddaddy of all pimps, rail thin and ash gray but with a dignified bearing. Stories are still circulated about how, years ago, Fillmore traveled from San Francisco to Hollywood with several prostitutes; the subsequent maneuvers between himself and Los Angeles pimps are reminiscent of the maneuvers of generals.

These pimps have their own peculiar morality. They talk about having respect for “the game.” While laziness and greed and (of course) sex are several reasons cited for getting into the business, Gorgeous Dre adds “You have to be a man before you can be a pimp.” Another is proud when he says, “I don’t steal nothing but a bitch’s mind.”

This last comment goes to the heart of “American Pimp.” The documentary is fast-paced, interspersed with scenes from blaxploitation flicks, and organized loosely by subject heading, one of which is “Why Does a Ho Need a Pimp?” It’s a question that is never successfully answered, particularly when we learn that these women receive no money for their work. That’s right. They are provided for (food, clothing, medical bills), but retain zero percent of their earnings.

Yet only a few prostitutes are interviewed, and their answers shed little light on this most basic dynamic. It’s an area the Hughes brothers should have delved into more deeply, because it reflects, in grotesque fashion, issues of sex and power and commerce that are ultimately universal.

To put it crassly: If the machinations of most men are about getting women into the sack, then what these men accomplish is truly mind-bending. They should be uber-men. So why do they come off as clowns?

At the least, prostitution seems an area in serious need of unionizing.

“American Pimp,” like other Hughes Brothers’ pictures, is a strange amalgam of the disturbing and humorous. Even at a screening for four critics, I found myself sickened by comments that caused another critic to roar with laughter.

The ending deals with inevitable repercussions. Gorgeous Dre, unrepentant, winds up in prison, while another pimp becomes a minister. Rosebudd marries his last whore. Now a self-proclaimed “square,” he’s a telemarketing supervisor with a high-rise office who lives in suburbia. His end is reminiscent of the final scene of “Goodfellas”: the sudden staid existence after the dynamic, illegal life. It’s the appeal of that life—whether the Mafia or pimping—that we find so disturbing.

Here’s hoping “American Pimp” can become grist for the Hughes Brothers’ feature filmmaking mill, where some of the above issues can be dealt with more deeply.

—Origianlly appeared in The Seattle Times on May 19, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard