The Hughes Brothers' Repellent American Pimp
American Pimp directed by Allen and Albert Hughes
That swing of tenses from trouble to pleasure, dejection to erection, is part of "Trouble Man"'s excellence. Heard today, Gaye seems to have expressed a life encompassing both difficulty and satisfaction. In the song's sleek, percussive recording, he balanced determination against woe: "There's only three things that's for sure/Taxes, death and trouble/This I know, baby." (It may even be a better song than Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," written for Superfly.) Gaye queried his own composition's illusion of cool, yet the fact of the music (and Gaye's memorable light tenor) proved a cool that couldn't be denied, a cool that came with effort. "Trouble Man" may have been written to order for a quickie movie, but its lush feeling intones experience and wisdom that should not be forgotten.
What's missing from the new movie American Pimp is the full consideration of life experience that Mitchell expressed through Gaye. American Pimp misuses "Trouble Man" along with several other blaxploitation soundtrack gems to beef up its spying on the shady world of boastful pimps. While hearing the film's traducement of "Trouble Man" (and "Superfly" and "Payback"), you might forget that those songs, now venerated by the hiphop generation, weren't about pimping, or even necessarily about the justification of scandalous movie characters. Reconsidered in an intelligent context, those movie themes were consistent with their composers' career-long interest in telling about "coming up hard" in every sense.
One of the worst misperceptions about black pop culture holds that the musical artists dragooned to legitimize 70s blaxploitation movies were complicit in the films' messages. ("Just a hustler in spite of myself," Curtis Mayfield sang in Superfly; he was imagining the life of a reprobate, but with a novelist's acuity, compassion and confessional sense of irony.) While enjoying 70s wah-wah grooves and soulful beats, it's easy to overlook that the musicians were more creative (and true to themselves) than the hackneyed filmmakers. It's possible to misconstrue what Gaye, Mayfield and James Brown knew about male struggle and think it can be reduced to justifications of drug-dealing and pimping. But when Bobby Womack sang, "Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight," in "Across 110th Street," it was a passionate oratorio on All-American longing. Those serious artists?grownup principled black men?sang insights (confessed striving and toil and hope) that are notoriously absent among American Pimp's glorified lineup of flesh-peddlers.
In the context of no context, American Pimp can be mistaken for a raw, honest account of the pimp-whore phenomenon in black American culture. But remember, this movie comes from the Hughes brothers, who, apparently, know nothing about art or the black experience. Back in '93 Allen and Albert Hughes (twins!) rode the hiphop wave with Menace II Society?a noxious exploitation of gangsta rap hysteria cannily timed to coincide rap's moral decline with Dr. Dre's The Chronic. The Hughes' trend-following caught fire with mainstream culture vultures who were typically late to rap but anxious to acknowledge any stereotypes of black criminality. Menace wasn't a nihilist work of art like The Chronic, it was just boastfully, intentionally bleak?which naive critics took be "real." After that the Hughes' hip antennae sought out hiphop's early-70s roots, and so misrepresented the collapse of the Black Power movement in Dead Presidents', a lurid, distorted telling of Black Panther history that so pandered to white fear and prejudice it was given a place of honor at the 1995 New York Film Festival?then sank from sight.
Now befouling millennial film culture, the Hughes brothers have a new tactic. Their American Pimp attempts to make fashionable those aspects of blaxploitation Quentin Tarantino hasn't gotten around to by confirming blaxploitation cliches in a fanciful documentary. (Any minute now I expect a rave from Strom Thurmond.) Like a sewage backup, the Hugheses return foolish notions about pimps and prostitutes that you might have thought had been flushed away. The superficial reclamation of pimping has been low on the radar even while rappers have been essentially celebrating the idea of black male egotism ("Looked up at the Goodyear blimp/And it said/ICE CUBE'S A PIMP!"). But if the Hugheses succeed at reviving what Too Short calls "pimpology," it will be by portraying their own fantasies as truth.
American Pimp effects the form of a documentary (just as Dead Presidents was a joke on drama) in order to validate the Hugheses' adolescent marveling at outlawry. The Hugheses claim to be keeping it real by relentlessly falsifying the precepts of nonfiction journalism and documentation. Documentary distortion has become de rigueur in the era of MTV's The Real World, ABC's Making the Band and CBS' Survivor, so the Hugheses are betting that maybe audiences won't be able to tell the difference between a movie that pretends to explore the sexual underworld and one that actually glorifies it. They start with white folks in a vox populi ?"A pimp has no moral sense"?presented as prejudices to be dispelled and punctuated with shots of the American flag. It first looks like the Hugheses might be making a mockumentary. But they're actually showing their contempt for truth and honesty. Nothing accomplishes that better than arrogant anti-political correctness; pimping becomes the moviemakers' way of flouting racial unease. Never mind the essential inhumane act of exploitation; pimping, the Hughes brothers insist, is a black thing. "Getting money out a bitch's ass," one pimp brags. Another, Rosebudd, boasts that his name is spelled with a "double D for this pimpin'." Shamelessly, the Hughes brothers follow that with a clip from Citizen Kane.
The Hughes brothers' pop culture facility is an irritating thing. Their display of cinema gimmicks and hiphop cliches has, from the beginning, been mistaken for talent. They use film-buff dazzle to distract from their ignorance. Instead of referring to the Last Poets' Hustler's Convention, the album-length examination of black cultural habit and legend, that Kane reference makes a specious point hoodwinking viewers unaware that African-American living traditions do not hold pimps in high esteem. (Proud testimonies from a pimp's mother and sister come out of?nowhere!) The Hugheses fake a documentary to make stereotypes seem real. When one of the 10 pimps interviewed explains, "Something came over me; I just started pimpin'," it's not questioned. The Hugheses don't know better, then don't challenge or explain.
As with Dead President's panoply of black clowns, it becomes apparent that the Hugheses (like most film critics) don't actually know any black men. When they imply sociology or psychology as explanations, it's only when those disciplines can supply evidence of degradation to back up black stereotypes. The Hughes brothers specialize in a new kind of White Slavery, running a game on white racist susceptibility. They don't interview the prostitutes about the irony of white women looking for black male power figures in skanky blonde/dusky muscled pairings. Yet one pimp is allowed to invoke slavery and Reconstruction as origins of pimping. "Prostitution wasn't a bad thing, you look at the old movies," advises Pimp Danny Brown, who's as benighted about history as the directors themselves.
Joni Mitchell proved she knew more than the Hughes brothers about the sexual and social connotations of black pimps when she posed as one for the cover of her Don Juan's Reckless Daughter album. But the Hugheses never analyze pimp-whore fetishism or materialism. They take idiotic pleasure in the outlandish clothes (one wears a white suit standing before the Capitol in Washington, DC) and monikers (one is called Bishop Don Magic Juan). By ignoring the roots of these men's behavior, American Pimp inflames audiences' sexual insecurity. The transgressive subject will seem "exciting" only so long as certain moral strictures are in place. The Hugheses idolize pimps as markers of success and rebellion. But this scoffing at Western repression (or is it a tribute to American venality?) remains superficial. "A priest needs nuns, a doctor needs nurses, pimps need hos," one slick practitioner says. Another adds, "Any man can kill, any woman can be turned out."
Misogyny? That's a joke to the Hugheses, too. Their cleverest filmmaking is editing black-and-white racetrack footage for a banal analogy to the way pimps run their stables of whores. ("If they don't get no instruction then there's self-destruction.") At one interesting moment, they cut away from a ho back-talking to her pimp rather than sustaining and exploring the moment as true verite artists would. Even pimps' well-known physical abuse is glossed. ("Now I will lay my goon hand down! Comb her head!" one admits briefly.) Still, the Hugheses don't get the politics of pimping. Despite using many clips?from a 1937 cautionary film titled Highway to Hell to the 1973 The Mack, from Slaughter to Street Smart?their film-buffery lacks understanding. (They leave out Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which knowingly jumped past rebellious erotic fantasy to articulate the politics of social resistance.) Links are made between street pimps and Marion Barry, "the great Ike Turner," even Donald Trump?all featured on a pimp calendar. The Hugheses simply expect audiences to get off on their subject.
For hiphop credibility, the Hugheses eventually bring up racist double standards by visiting a Nevada bordello (the Moonlight Bunny Ranch), then evoking Heidi Fleiss and Hugh Hefner as American celebrities. It's a fake complaint, the sort the Hugheses are used to getting away with. In the whole history of American motion pictures, I cannot think of another instance where black filmmakers brazenly guilt-tripped both white reviewers and black youth audiences with such transparent exploitation. The ruse works only because the Hugheses contribute to the media's incessant stereotyping of black behavior. Their ignorance about the experience of black manhood matches the mainstream's. Treating pimps as heroes, the Hugheses yet don't treat them as human beings. Even an aging pimp from San Francisco, Fillmore Slim, is not shown as a man of trouble and complication that r&b artists know to sing about, but as a noble icon whose glazed face is shaded by an antique fedora brim.
America's race-sex-crime fixation?which James Toback examined as satire, as exposé, as truth in Black and White?gets twisted and confused in American Pimp. It proves that in the years since the Hughes brothers lucked into a cultural moment, they haven't learned anything. Their evocation of Gaye, Mayfield, Brown and Al Green (heard while a pimp-preacher declaims) as cultural touchstones is wasted. And the entire history of America's troubled black men?plus the complicated ways they adapt in order to deal?is disgraced. Let's hope these fake "brothers" don't do an encore.
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