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Austin Chronicle Fistful of Freaks

Albert and Allen Hughes' American Pimp

By Marc Savlov

MARCH 20, 2000:  Shot over the course of two and a half years, the Hughes Brothers' (Allen and Albert) documentary American Pimp dives headfirst into the rightfully maligned subculture of the black American pimp and comes up with a fistful of freaks, racial subdivisions, and outlandish tales that make Starsky and Hutch's Huggy Bear look like the cheezy TV parody he was. Pimpin' is a business -- but these days, business isn't very good. Why the fascination with this taboo cultural subject? Why not? says Allen. "If you think about it, there's never been a documentary about real pimps -- ever -- and that's really why we decided to do it in the first place."

To that end, the filmmakers laid down the narrative film strategies they perfected with their first two films (the critically acclaimed Menace II Society and Dead Presidents), grabbed an Arriflex SR-1 and a soundman, and took to the streets of New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and other less-than-exotic locales to shoot the pimps, guerrilla-style, in their native neighborhoods. The result is a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious look at the modern pimp as arbiter of the inner-city underbelly. In a fractured economic environment where the disparity between the wealthy white elite and the poor black pimp "just trying to do his job" is more and more apparent each day, the Hughes Brothers put themselves in the gritty thick of it, with sporadically dangerous results.

"The most dangerous situation that we were ever in -- and it wasn't really that dangerous at all," says Allen Hughes, "was when we were in Chicago, going to a player's ball. We went into this one house with the pimp in question, and there turned out to be some guy in a hospital gown cooking up crack cocaine in the kitchen. I thought, oh, man, if they bust this place right now I'm going to be in some serious trouble, you know? But it wasn't like that all the time." "They're not violent," interjects Albert.

"Right," agrees Allen. "They're not like gangbangers, where you might get shot in a crossfire. It's nothing like that."

Cut through with various clips from Seventies blaxploitation films such as the 1973 Richard Pryor ho-stravaganza The Mack (briefly referenced in the Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino film True Romance), American Pimp paints a portrait of outlaw black culture on the skids -- though whether the decline in pimpin' is a tragedy or a boon is left up to the viewer to decide.

"Back then, in the Seventies," says Allen, "the classic black street pimp was still prevalent. Now, with the advent of crack cocaine and the whole gangbanging, hip-hop culture, the money became fast, really fast. Pimping? It's a hard thing, you know? It's not fast money like running dope. These pimps have become pretty much old creatures on the streets. We talked about it in the documentary, we touched on it, but you take a guy today and put him on the street like this and he's going to have an Uzi and go out and kill people. Back in the day the pimps at least had some respect. It's a lot like the business climate, in that times have changed and things move a lot faster these days. Things are much more violent, and the morals have changed. Those old-school pimps, they're a dying breed, they're dinosaurs."

Adds Albert, "It's too hard for our generation. As far as media portrayals, Conan O'Brien has his pimp-bot and so things like that are still out there, but the character of the pimp is now viewed as a clown, as a buffoon. I don't think it'll ever be taken seriously again."

Both Hughes brothers readily admit to wanting to get back behind the cameras and to the sporadic sanity provided on a film set. Their next film, an adaptation of Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novel From Hell ... is currently being cast, with Johnny Depp tagged for the lead role of a Victorian-era detective on the trail of Jack the Ripper. It's a project that's been floating around Hollywood since its inception five years back, and one the Hughes brothers are clearly excited about.

"We were comic-book collectors when we were young," says Allen, "but we weren't hip to Alan Moore at all. We first heard about the script when we were at Disney, and they offered it to us as part of four other projects. We kind of passed on it and then it went to a couple of other studios, and while it circulated we began reading the comic book and realized how, you know, dense it was, and decided to do it. It's fascinating to us because we've always liked to deal with the underclass criminal culture in our films, and this is a totally new culture and period for us. I think after American Pimp -- which we call our 'third installment in our Negro trilogy' -- we just needed to move on and do something that's more challenging, something that's the opposite of what we are and what we've done so far.

And, says Albert, the pair has always had a fascination with Jack the Ripper: "Ever since Leonard Nimoy covered him on In Search Of ... when we were seven years old. We kind of feel like this is something that should have been done a long time ago, and we're glad to be able to do it now."

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