The Players Club

 American Pimp, the documentary by the twins Allen and Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents, Menace II Society), may not be the most garrulous exploitation film ever made, but—James Toback, eat your heart out—it surely sets the modern record for the use of the word bitch in an 86-minute film.

Alternately mind-expanding and brain-numbing, American Pimp splices together interviews with a dozen or more macks, players, and perpetually wired gentlemen of leisure who—smooth, persuasive, and hyper-verbal—seize every opportunity, and more, to run their riffs. The pimp who compares his mouth to an Uzi has it exactly right. These guys talk so damn much and with such relentless self-justification they might be trying to drill a hole in your head.

An opening montage of assorted honkies dissing pimp morality immediately establishes mackdom as a race thing. Offering some history lite, the Hugheses identify their subjects with the trickster figures of West African folklore and make a vague connection to the material conditions that followed slavery. Surely more could have been done with this, but then American Pimp is not an educational film. (The distinctions between "macks" and "players" or "real pimps" and "perpetrator pimps" are left hanging.) The mode is strictly subcultural show-and-tell.

Guess which one’s Bishop Don Magic Juan.
photo: Seventh Art Releasing
Guess which one’s Bishop Don Magic Juan.


American Pimp
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
A Seventh Art release
Opens June 9

Loveís Labourís Lost
Adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh
From the play by William Shakespeare
A Miramax release
Opens June 9

American Pimp is most concerned with the spell cast by an image. As more than a few rap artists have been, the Hughes brothers were captivated by Iceberg Slim's perennial best-seller Pimp, The Story of My Life and inspired by blaxploitation cult classics like The Mack and Willie Dynamite. The peacocks who strut through these movies so strongly resemble their real-life models that, given this rare example of Hollywood verisimilitude, one naturally wonders who was the model for whom. The Hughes brothers quote scenes from the movies while their pimps paraphrase the dialogue.

Moving from Honolulu to Vegas to San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington, D.C. (where a pimp posed in front of the Capitol laughs that he's "making more money than the president"), American Pimp has a tawdry jet-set ambience. If prostitution is understood as a version of interactive showbiz, the pimps are a movie in themselves—and not a silent one. "The name is internationally known: Bishop Don Magic Juan," says one by way of an introduction. Global reputation or not, the pimp in question has a collection of pictures in which, resplendently turned out in matching gator shoes, suit, and sombrero, he's posed with such kindred hustlers as Ike Turner, Marion Barry, and Donald Trump. (Later, the good Bishop reveals that "one of the greatest pimps who ever lived is called . . . God.")

As with all small entrepreneurs, the pimps' commitment to the work ethic is total—so long as you're working for them. They constantly return to the bottom line, and whether or not it's true that, as one mack boasts, "anyone can be turned out," they can recognize their prey getting off the bus in any big city. One mack is as proud as Rudy Giuliani to have taken some bitch off welfare. To a man, they disdain the idea of violence or abuse. Dripping with rings that could double as brass knuckles, they promote pimping as a head trip: "I don't steal nothing but a bitch's mind." A successful pimp is the street-smart equivalent of a chess grandmaster; explaining "pimpology" to a square would be like "talking astrophysics to a muthafuckin' wino."

The plenitude of snapshots and group portraits of pimps'n'hos suggests a sort of perverse family structure. Human sentiment is not completely absent. "She was the first 'ho to pay me," one pimp recalls with a tenderness somewhat more convincing than his subsequent bid for sympathy in recounting the story of a hooker killed in action. This movie is the celluloid equivalent of a term at the Citadel. Could there possibly be a female point of view? (A paper could be written on the sociology of American Pimp as a dating flick.) The filmmakers interview only a handful of 'hos, and the most articulate is a legal sex worker employed by a sanctimonious white businessman at Nevada's Bunny Ranch. The few minutes that the Hugheses spent soaking up the circus maximus atmosphere of the Players Ball is virtually the only time in the movie we get to see the pimps together with their employees.

Not unlike the 'hos, American Pimp feels more than a little cowed by its subjects. The pimps are as hungry for stardom as Andy Warhol's drag queens, but the Hugheses are almost always outmanipulated. There's no going beneath the surface with the pimps themselves—although several reveal ambitions going back to childhood. A more creative psychologist than the filmmakers, Iceberg Slim—briefly heard incanting a poem from his '70s LP Reflections—posited an Orestes complex. Suggesting that pimps were taking vengeance on their rejecting mothers, he claimed to have personally known "several dozen" who were "dumped into trash bins" as infants. Of course, for some, the privilege of golfing with white business swells on the spectacular overlook of some Honolulu country club would be justification enough. Or, as another pimp snarls: "I'm not going to wipe your toilets. Fuck you."

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