American Pimp (1999)

After a recent post and some good conversation, I got to thinking about why I hated Crash (2004) so much. And I think the reason, like with Monster’s Ball (2001) — but to a bit lesser extent, is that it packages a very easy pill for the viewing public to swallow when it comes to presenting a clichĂ©d vision of race relations in the U.S. So, I started to think about The Hughes Brothers American Pimp (1999), a documentary that takes the complete opposite approach to these questions than a movie like Crash. Rather than pretending to be a deep drama about the complexities of race, it focuses on a particular stereotyped figure, in this case the Pimp, and examines it as a racial, social, and economic phenomenon.

I wouldn’t suggest that this documentary is a masterpiece by any means, and there is no question it is equally exploitative in many regards. Yet, it does offer an emblazoned look at questions surrounding race, class, and gender that introduces some very strong opinions, often preferable to the generic tropes that characterize a film like Crash. During a graduate seminar I took many years ago we were talking about issues surrounding race and identity in the nineteenth century, using Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection as a lens through which to discuss the quotidian acts of terror and subjection that framed the intersections of race, identity and power during this period.

I was tasked to present on Hartman’s text and I decided to integrate a scene from American Pimp that offers a very brief and anecdotal history of the “Origins of the Pimp” as a means to suggest the transvaluation of something like prostitution during the postbellum period from an act that was tolerated (if not openly engaged) to a new severity of criminality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?

I don’t think my discussion went over very well, and will probably fail here once again. Nonetheless, I still think the idea opens up a fascinating opportunity to think through how we understand what is right and wrong and the identities around which we frame such a discussion. One of the pimps in the clip below has a complex theory of pimping in my mind that in many ways adheres to some of Hartman’s theories, namely prostitution (and by extension pimps) amongst the free, white populations was something that was often recognized and tolerated, if not entirely condoned.

Yet, by the end of the nineteenth century this reality becomes more and more strained as it becomes increasingly apparent that a number of free black men and women are making a living (tax free!). Now I understand this theory is overstated and anecdotal, and doesn’t even being to deal with the exploitation of women at work in such a model. Nonetheless, I think it might begin to open up a few ideas about the “nature” of laws, justice, and our larger ideas of some kind of moral integrity that is fraught with more quotidian acts of terror and control that Hartman outlines beautifully. Wouldn’t a dramatic criminalization of pimping and prostitution at this particular moment in history suggest how people, groups, and ideas make a constant nexus of mediated struggle abstracted through power and justice, which is itself constantly in flux.

So here is the two minute clip from American Pimp I showed in grad school, it has all kinds of harsh language and some brief and very tame nudity, so you have been warned, sucker!

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4 Responses to American Pimp (1999)

  1. Shannon says:

    Some of my favorite blog posts that you write are the ones where you analyze movies. Even though I lack the ability to read into movies the way you do (go ahead a say it, “You Philistine!” heh) when you write these posts it makes it easier, for this non film buff, to go deeper into film.
    Of course my history major senses started tingling at the idea that prostitution and pimping became condemned once Black people started to make money at it (tax free!). This would certainly be interesting as a thesis paper : )
    Rock on Rev.

  2. Chip says:

    Quick digression to previous post — there may be a gravestone about your tenure at UR, but here there is much discussion about resurrection. The close proximity to Easter: a coincidence? I think not.

    To this post — I’ve got many movies to see before I can play in your league (as you know), but I’m wondering if you’ve seen one that I have. The discussion of the depiction of race made me think of Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope.” I haven’t seen it since it came out in 1969, but I remember more about that film than many that I’ve seen since. Certainly it was way over the top, and certainly it is a white man’s vision, but it is at least memorable if not deep. The power comes not so much from the racial satire (although that’s memorable too) but from its juxtaposition with Madison Avenue advertising (requires having some sense of the state-of-the-practice in advertising at the time).

    Memorable, of course, doesn’t always imply good, and I’d have to see it again to figure out whether I think there was art there. Instead, I leave the question in your capable hands

  3. Reverend says:


    A couple of response in regards to many things:

    a) Thank you, thank you thank you (play infinite loop here) Like Flannery O’Connor meant to write, “A great CIO is hard to find.”

    b) There may be something to this resurrection idea, my dog recently dug up my reverend collar, the fact that I start back the day after Easter raises all kind of strange parallels. There have even been a few reverened sightings on UMW Blogs already.

    c) I haven;t seen Putney Swope, in fact I haven;t seen any of Robert Downey’s Sr.’s films, which is a major hole in my viewing given how much I have heard about his films. From your description I immediately think about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which makes me Putney Swope may very well make an interesting double bill with this more recent take on Madison Avenue’s understanding of blackness. Thanks for this recommendation, consider it Netflix queued. I imagine we can actually have the discusion about these movies in person sometime very soon 🙂

  4. Reverend says:

    You are too kind, but the only ravings of the reverend worth there salt, are of the WordPress variety. Admittedly, the Hughes Brothers film is misogynistic in its ow right, and I think there is a certain amount of circumlocution around that point in the post above, that said there are some interesting theories of history put forward by a number of the pimp figures that may very well be the basis of an outlandish historical thesis. And you may even tie it into the quest of blackness and Irishness in the 19th century. You have chosen a great discipline.

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