Predators, outlaw studs, clown princes of fashion, brainwashers: The men who tell their tales in American Pimp, an eye-opening documentary exposé directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, could be described in many ways, but before anything else they are talkers — fast-patter con artists who throw words around like gold glitter, using their loquacious gab to seduce and deceive.
The Hughes brothers, directors of the brilliant ”Menace II Society,” introduce us to such veterans of ”the game” as Fillmore Slim, a courtly San Francisco player in his 70s, still long and lean in his white overcoat, his eyes narrowed to inscrutable slits; and Gorgeous Dre, a hip-hop-era pimp who grew up in the shadow of the blaxploitation period that derived much of its style and spirit from operators like Slim. The movie presents their stories, and those of a dozen other pimps, weaving their braggadocio together into a sustained verbal power rush — a vicarious strut of money, charisma, and invincibility.
”American Pimp” is supple and engrossing, a liquid-smooth street-rap testimonial. Still, does the movie showcase these survivors of the urban underworld as they actually are, or are we just staring into their masks? The answer, I think, is both at once, and that’s part of the film’s intrigue. The Hughes brothers slyly undercut the image of the pimp as superman even as they pay tribute to its continuing power as an African-American cultural myth.
At various points, we see clips from such mack-daddy blaxploitation classics as ”Willie Dynamite.” Most of these films look like harmless camp now, but real pimps are, of course, anything but harmless. They are viciously manipulative charmers who root their power in the perpetual, coiled threat of violence. When ”American Pimp” debuted at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, the film set off fiery pockets of debate over whether it was glamorizing the life that it showed.
I think the Hughes brothers are too subtle for that: They present the imperious, disquieting spectacle of flesh peddlers who glory in putting down their ”bitches” (the way the word is used, it’s synonymous with ”slaves”), even as they remain godlike in their own minds. In a sense, we’re asked to identify with the intricate contours of a pimp’s self-justification.
Having said that, I was driven, after seeing the movie, to seek out Iceberg Slim’s fabled autobiography, ”Pimp,” a book that lays bare the ruthless highs and degraded lows of the pimp’s game with an honesty so scary it’s cathartic. ”American Pimp” never risks that level of revelation. The Hughes brothers pack in a great deal of truth, most of it sordidly fascinating. But not, perhaps, the whole truth.