Hughes Brothers #1 – American Pimp (1999)

The Story

The Hughes Brothers pull the gaudy, golden curtain back on the culture of big city pimps in a documentary that gives the pimps themselves a forum from which to preach and proselytize their ways. Revolving around a motley and colorful assortment of mostly-West Coast pimps with names like Rosebudd,  Payroll, Gorgeous Dre, and Ken Red, American Pimp dispels (and occasionally confirms) popular stereotypes to get at the often-mundane truth behind the flamboyance and the day-to-day life of “the game.” The film pays special attention to pimps in pop culture, well-known celebrity pimps like Fillmore Slim and Bishop Don “Magic” Juan, and the economic and racial factors that lurk in the shadows of an already shadowy job.

The Production

The failure of Dead Presidents in 1995 didn’t exactly end the moment of the Hughes Brothers as Hollywood “it” directors, but the Brothers’ once-shining star was running low on fuel. One can track the seismic change in the Brothers’ fortunes between Presidents and American Pimp by noting the difference between how the movies were made. Dead Presidents was a hand-picked project, anointed by some as the next great African-American crime drama before a frame of footage had been shot. Just two years later, American Pimp started in trouble and then steadily fell apart from there.

 

“I can fix that for you. Just tell me what you need.”

The documentary began life as an adaptation of the 1969 memoir Pimp: The Story of my Life, by Iceberg Slim. A shady producer cost the Brothers the rights to the book, but rather than abandon the project entirely, they decided to lean on their West Coast contacts and transform the film into a documentary on the art and craft of pimping. The Brothers’ big idea was to allow the pimps to tell their own stories through the lens of the American ideal—young dreamers and schemers who rise from poverty to become wealthy beyond all measure. For their outsized version of the American Dream, the Hughes Brothers planned to use a hyper-visual style, but ran into problems:

“We were in it for totally exploring this lifestyle and – this was our mistake at first – making the filmmaking parallel the flamboyance of the pimp lifestyle, even overshadow it. It didn’t work at first. The pimps were too flamboyant.” – Albert Hughes”

Filming was meant to last for a year, but frequent changes in style and approach kept the Brothers from really cracking the film and the struggling production dragged on for two-and-a-half years  before ultimately losing its funding. By the time the film was complete, the Brothers had spent their own money to bring it to Sundance in 1999, where the film played to a packed theatre of interested buyers. Unfortunately, the movie was poorly received and the advance buzz fizzled as the film went unsold. What had been expected to be a Hughes Brothers POW BAM WOW spectacle had instead turned out to be an understated, thoughtful, even sly exploration of pimping and capitalism, and the Brothers had to settle for limited distribution. Despite their efforts, the film lapsed into obscurity.

 

Which took some fucking doing, let me tell you.

What Works Like Crazy

To appreciate American Pimp, it’s best to look at the film from a slant. Taking the film at face value gives a viewer the false sense that they’re watching a straight celebration of a fairly repugnant profession. Even the pimps themselves seem to believe they’re set up as the heroes, and grant the filmmakers stunning access in a happy effort to explain how they came to be so awesome. One pimp walks the audience to the steps of the Capitol Building and the White House (“everything is white here. I need to get in there.”) Another pimp does something even bolder—he takes the audience to meet his sweetheart mother.

It’s no surprise that a room full of studio wallets clenched while viewing the film. Pimp is built almost entirely from footage of pimps talking, and these pimps talk on and on about some insanely offensive shit. The pimps justify their practice of keeping 100% of the money earned by their girls. The pimps explain that women need to be called bitches so that they know they’re loved. They downplay the violence inherent in the job, except for one pimp who describes in ugly detail how he would never kill a woman, but he might beat her until she thinks she’s about to die, so that she’ll stick tighter to him because of his mercy. A girl nods and smiles at his side.

But the film has an agenda, and eventually feeds the pimps enough velvet rope to strangle their own case. When a pimp named Charm, in prison for pushing a 16-year old girl, declares that there’s nothing wrong with pimping except that it is immoral in the eyes of God, it’s clear that the Hughes Brothers do not have stars in their eyes. They sympathize, however, with the kids who do. The Brothers understand how a poor black boy living in poverty might see the local pimp with his flashy outfits, stacks of cash, and a stable of girls as an ultimate symbol of empowerment. They understand the allure of the pimp in poor black culture.

The Brothers draw a line through media depictions of pimps—the film leans hard on clips from The Mack and Superfly— through the inner-city and blaxploitation movements of the 1970 and into the modern day, all the time hinting at the role America’s (and humanity at large’s) complicated relationship with sex and race resulted in a system that allows some people to sell sex legally and leaves others stuck with the stigma of being no-good pimps. A memorable scene takes place at the Bunny Ranch in Nevada run by sex kingpin Dennis Hof who gropes his female employees on camera and speaks of sexual equality with a voice that sounds like he’d rather be counting money. He’s not the most grotesque character in the film, but he’s close. It’s no accident that he’s white and the illegal pimps on the West Coast are not. American Pimp is never shy about landing a bit of poetic, damning irony.

 

And the occasional Sledgehammer of Irony

What Disappoints

I should note that the title of the movie is American Pimp and not American Prostitute, and so it should not surprise anyone that the film lacks in female perspective. Having said that, where the hell is the female perspective?

American Pimp works hard to make the case for pimping before turning that case against pimps, but the people most affected by pimps and who might have the most to say about life in the pimp system—i.e., the women—are left almost entirely out of the film. An occasional prostitute appears for a soundbite, but American Pimp is almost exclusively about pimps, from pimps, all the way down the line.

I’m convinced that American Pimp is working against the Rosebudds of the world. At the very least, the film seeks to complicate a very morally clear issue. But by dodging major issues—the women, yes, but more attention could have paid to race politics, and the Hughes Brothers have admitted to cutting the lowest rung of pimps out of the project completely, those that use drugs to keep their women in check—the film pays a favor for those who seek to poke holes in the its motives. Here’s a movie that’s under fire and passes out its own ammunition.

Overall

The Hughes Brothers make films that ignore realism in favor of heightened dream states and exaggerated emotions, so it’s ironic that their most accomplished film is the one that dials back the style and depicts real life, if admittedly one of life’s showier corners. Menace II Society remains their most engaging and impactful film, but American Pimp reveals the filmmakers that sometimes get lost behind the “Hughes Brothers” brand. The Brothers recorded hundreds of hours of self-congratulating monologues and somehow found a way to turn the footage back around on its subjects. That’s a filmmaking magic trick that deserves more praise than the Brothers received.

From where I sit, American Pimp is a summary of the Hughes Brothers as filmmakers. The movie has style and hidden depths, and it revolves around the central theme of the Hughes Brothers’ career—the compelling nature of urban violence and crime. However, the movie feels distractingly incomplete and compromised, coming so close to greatness without ever quite paying off on its obvious potential. Still, to my eyes, it’s still the smartest and most accomplished film the Brothers have made so far.

The Hughes Brothers Project

1. American Pimp (1999)

2. Menace II Society (1993)

3. The Book of Eli (2010)

4. From Hell (2001)

5. Dead Presidents (1995)

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