MGM // 1999 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 9th, 2001
"You see, pimping's big business. And it's been going on since the beginning of time. And it's going to continue straight ahead, until somebody turns out the lights on this small planet. Can you dig it?" -- The Mack
It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. And that somebody is the Hughes Brothers, who take us on a tour of the surreal underworld of macks and ho's. American Pimp glows like a neon light drawing moths in the darkness.
Meet Rosebudd, "with a double-d for a double dose of pimping." Charmingly confident, he nostalgically rifles through a stack of old photographs, telling stories of his past conquests. Meet Ken Red, top mack of Washington, DC, in his spotless white suit and perfect haircut. Meet Bishop Don Magic Juan, with his hypnotic rhymes like a 21st century Rudy Ray Moore. Even his mother is proud of him. And never forget Fillmore Slim, the Godfather of the Game. This legendary San Francisco pimp stands up for fairness and integrity in the toughest game of all. These men and many more (and a few women as well) are about to take us on a drive through the mean streets of the pimp world. And it isn't all gold jewelry and mink coats.
Fairness and integrity? Charm? American Pimp quickly smashes some of the stereotypes white America has about the pimping trade. Other stereotypes it gleefully reinforces, juxtaposing clips from classic '70s movies like The Mack and Dolemite with images of real-life excess. The result is a marvelous and watchable exploration of a subculture that most would dismiss in disgust, while secretly patronizing or condoning.
Allen and Albert Hughes, who came to public attention with 1993's muscular Menace II Society and the flawed Dead Presidents, have always been interested in exploring the complexities of urban culture. Note that I did not say "urban black culture," as their upcoming adaptation of Alan Moore's Victorian thriller From Hell will likely attest. While American Pimp does spend most of its time chronicling the lives of African-American pimps (with one notable exception, as we shall discuss shortly), the film subtly suggests that the association between pimping and black culture is in part a media construct: life imitating art imitating life.
In fact, pimping is showmanship, from the alligator shoes and gold suits (yes, some of them really wear that stuff!) to the hip-hop sensibility. The pimp is one of the most enduring and mythical figures in modern black culture. The Hughes Brothers play with their audience's perception of pimping, seducing us with surreal images of flash and glamour (how seriously are we meant to take scenes like the 1998 Players' Ball, where one gleeful Superfly waves his "Pimp of the Year" trophy for all to see?) and the pimps' mile-a-minute salesman chatter. This is all part of the game: the film opens with a montage of "mainstream Americans" (meaning, white people) badmouthing pimping without clearly having any idea what it is or why it might be good or bad -- they know the myth but not the men. Next, the film introduces us to the players, cutting back and forth between interview footage and short segments on different aspects of the "Game" (its long history, popular culture parodies, the "rules," its peculiar language).
It is easy to get seduced by these men: they are fast talkers and look like they have it made. But slowly over the course of the film, the Hughes Brothers let these players talk themselves into trouble. We see Ken Red enjoying a haircut and preening -- then the phone rings and we see him rail against one of his "bitches." It becomes clear that women are mere objects to a pimp: "she has to be a thoroughbred," one tells us. Another cynically sums up his seemingly magical ability to recruit women for his stable: "Any man can kill. Any woman can be turned out." It is all business -- no love and no empathy -- as one remarks, "I do not buy dreams. I only sell them."
And what about the women? The Hughes Brothers discretely step back, showing us several hookers who are perfectly happy with their pimps, accepting the old pimp adage that "There's women that think you didn't love them if you didn't whup them." The tone of the film darkens as it progresses: a sinister history of violence and power rides along with the glamour of prostitution. By the time we reach the section on "legal" prostitution -- including a long interview with the only white pimp here, Dennis Hof (owner of the Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada), who talks coldly of "menus" of sexual services and spanks one woman like a prize horse -- it is clear that the objectification of women is a problem that extends far beyond the boundaries of the ghetto. And there is complicity among both men and women in reinforcing this terrible cycle of degradation.
The strength of American Pimp lies in the Hughes Brothers' careful, existential approach to this difficult material. They do not moralize (the easy way out): pimping is a fact of life. But the real viciousness of the Game comes through in the accretion of details: the cruel language, the manipulation and emotional domination of the women, the dangerous backlash by the law. Morality aside, American Pimp shows the "Game" as a tear in the social fabric -- one which may point to even larger flaws in our relationships to one another.
MGM has done a fine job with the DVD package as a whole. The Hughes Brothers use a variety of film stocks (some crisp, some grainy), but the anamorphic transfer shows off every detail precisely. The 5.1 Surround mix works best with the funky '70s incidental music, but since this is a dialogue-heavy film, do not expect any sonic surprises. The Hughes Brothers do not provide a commentary track -- the choice is probably appropriate in this case, since they intend to let the material speak for itself. However, the DVD does include a fine 25-minute interview with the twin filmmakers, recorded at the 2000 South by Southwest Festival for the Independent Film Channel. The brothers are quite funny and personable, and cover such topics as the difficulty of empathy with their subjects, the influence of their feminist mother, and their strategies for allowing the pimps to hang themselves without resorting to obvious moral lessons.
The disc also includes a Spanish dub, and Spanish and French subtitles (but no English ones for some reason).
Be warned: American Pimp is not a film for the easily offended. Some viewers may balk at the very notion of giving pimps their say. Others may feel that the Hughes Brothers should have played it safe and openly condemned their subjects by providing some "other perspective" (say, cops or abused hookers). While the film is relatively free of violence and overt sexuality, the themes and language are rough -- and the treatment of women (and the implicit cynicism of male sexuality as well) is far more disturbing than in most films. But then again, put American Pimp side-by-side against any Jerry Bruckheimer movie, to which teens blindly flock and imitate, and tell me which film has a more dangerous attitude. At least the pimps are honest about their power games.
American Pimp may not be an easy documentary to watch, but it is an important examination of a disparaged and fading subculture -- and beyond that, a critical perspective on the uncomfortable relationship between gender and power that still bubbles under the surface of our allegedly enlightened modern culture.
This court declares the Hughes Brothers the mack daddies of documentary filmmaking. Here's hoping that whoring themselves out to Fox for the big budget From Hell will pay off in gator shoes and Cadillacs for everyone come this September. Can you dig it?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Independent Focus: The Hughes Brothers (interview)