The Hughes Brothers’ Repellent American Pimp

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

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
. 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

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

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

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
, 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

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.