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Heigh Ho, It's Off to Work They Go

Hughes brothers make pimpin' seem as benign as the cartoonish caricature of the profession

Call it the second-oldest profession in the world. It's certainly one of the most quintessentially American: Few professions combine sex, capitalism, violence and self-gratification in quite the way that pimping does. It's like perpetual adolescence, allowing those who practice the profession well to surround themselves with beautiful and willing ladies, rake in the tax-free cash and behave in an impulsive and violent manner toward anyone who "disrespects" them. Small wonder that there are those who fantasize about being pimps, from Dolemite to Kid Rock to the WWF's Godfather. And yet the popular image of pimps is so outrageously over the top -- a high-pitched fast-talker with platform shoes, unfeasibly huge hat, garish clothes and the world's most conspicuous automobile -- that it's easy to wonder if there is any reality whatsoever to the mental picture.

Albert and Allen Hughes -- remember them? -- wondered the same thing; the creators of the urban thrillers Menace II Society and Dead Presidents decided to kill two obsessions with one stone: Investigate the American pimp as he exists today, and strip their filmmaking technique down to its barest essentials by documenting that quest. The result is American Pimp, a film that has been doing the festival circuit and has finally landed in theaters. As any documentary on a controversial subject will do, the film has generated its share of criticism, notably from those who feel it glorifies the pimping lifestyle, or at the very least doesn't sufficiently condemn it. Of course, the best documentaries generally try to hold back and let the audience decide, giving a controversial individual time to make his own case while providing opposing viewpoints that attempt, successfully or not, to shoot them full of holes. The Hughes brothers provide plenty of the former, but perhaps not enough of the latter, depending upon one's disposition toward hustlers who rent out women like golf carts. If you don't already have a problem with that, it's going to take more than this film to shake your beliefs.

One of only three or four "hos" to be interviewed on camera breaks down the three basic types of pimp. There's type one, the kind that'll get you hooked on drugs so you remain dependent on him. Type two is a demanding, domineering personality who doesn't need to use drugs to enforce his will. And type three is simply defined as "the player," essentially the slick, comic-relief pimp we know and love or loathe. The thing is, assuming that this film represents a typical sample of pimps in America, all of them appear to be type three. At least, that's what they want you to think.

It seems as though the Hughes brothers themselves may have fallen under the pimps' spell. We see New York pimp R.P. threaten two of his women, and numerous others talking about how they have to threaten to kill their women to keep them in line, but it's presented in such a fashion that it feels about as dangerous as Ralph Kramden's "To the moon!" It may be that the Hugheses simply weren't permitted to watch any acts of disciplining, but the portrayals still lack balance. It would be nice to hear, for instance, from someone on the vice squad who has had firsthand experience with pimps, or an employee at a battered women's shelter.

American Pimp clearly tries to contrast the fantasy image of a pimp with the reality, and intersperses numerous clips, from blaxploitation flicks to Jerry Springer, to give us the media image. Again, though, it would've been nice to actually hear from some of the media stars who glamorize the pimp. Has Kid Rock, for instance, ever personally known any hos? The only guest celebrity to appear on camera is rapper Too $hort, pontificating like he knows firsthand, and maybe he does.

As for the contrast between fantasy and reality, pimp Bishop Don Magic Juan says of Springer, et al., "They have to use that punk shit to make the pimpin' look raggedy." Fair enough, wouldn't be the first time. But other than the revelation that being a successful pimp requires hard work, what we see doesn't contradict the image at all. The arrogance is there; the greed is there; and despite claims that "You can't be a ho if you're not intelligent," the profession is definitely misogynist.

The film's strongest segment is devoted to "legal pimps," bringing up not only a legal brothel called the Bunnyranch, but also Hugh Hefner. Porno movies aren't really touched upon, but there is a close-to-the-bone comparison made between prostitution and the singles bar scene, in that at least a ho has something to show for it after a one-night stand.

Thankfully the film doesn't press the issue of pimping as black empowerment any further than the pimps themselves try to. Ultimately it's hard to make the claim that the film glamorizes pimps, at least not to the same extent as an Ice-T record might, but it doesn't present any significant non-pimp viewpoints, and therein lies the movie's primary weakness. Still, for a first documentary, American Pimp is competently made, and yes, you do get to learn the best places to pick up prostitutes in L.A. But you'll have to buy a ticket to find out that information.

 
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