As chilling as it is engrossing, "American Pimp" is an extraordinary document of how racial politics, sexual hypocrisy, individualism and greed have intersected to create an icon of the American underbelly.
Allen and Albert Hughes ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents") make their nonfiction debut with a lively, compulsively watchable but ultimately sobering film about the men who make their living off prostitution.
Interviewing subjects with names like Rosebudd, Fillmore Slim, Charm and Bishop Don Magic Juan, the Hugheses peel the veil from a mysterious corner of American culture, where exploitation and bootstrap capitalism collide with stunning force.
On the one hand, the pimp represents a black success story, an entrepreneur whose efforts were criminalized because white society was threatened by his wealth - and the fact that he didn't pay taxes. It's this icon of power, style and self-determination that has been celebrated in African-American culture, from movies like "The Mack" to R&B and rap songs.
The pimp is a colorful figure, with the oversized hats, gold rings and color-coordinated clothes worn by his female stable. But that image is at odds with someone who is essentially a predator, and who victimizes women of limited physical, emotional and mental resources, like a lecherous Fagin.
The Hugheses play these two images off each other with finesse. "American Pimp" features some extraordinarily candid interviews with pimps (including Fillmore Slim, who has been "in the game" for more than 60 years), prostitutes and the chief of a legal whorehouse in Nevada. Aided tremendously by the musical sensibility of Doug Pray ("hype!"), the Hugheses have made a vital, observant and depressing shadow-chronicle of American social history, presenting their subjects as charming and intelligent as they are monstrous.
Still, there are moments when the Hugheses seem to like their leading men too much to ask the hard questions. Easily the movie's most gut-wrenching scene is of Rosebudd, now retired, walking with his toddler daughter in a Los Angeles park (he wound up marrying the last woman in his employ). They don't ask him, and the audience can only wonder, how he'd feel if some day that little girl decided to get into the game herself.
Featuring Rosebudd, C-Note, Charm, Fillmore Slim, Gorgeous Dre, Bishop Don Magic Juan
Directed by the Hughes brothers
Released by Seventh Art Releasing
Running time 90 minutes
Rated R (pervasive sexual content including dialogue, strong language and some drug-related material)
Sun score: ***