The films of Detroit-born Allen and Albert Hughes resist generic categories, their work spanning everything from coming-of-age urban dramas to stylized historical thrillers. If a single theme pervades, from Menace II Society to From Hell, it’s the nature of power — how those with it burn to keep it, how those without it burn to attain it. As with the films of Martin Scorsese, power in the Hughes brothers’ films is best measured not by money or fame, but by the degree of power one has over others.
Nowhere have the Hughes brothers engaged that theme as directly as in 1999’s American Pimp, a documentary on the business of pimping that presents testimonies from street hustlers as well as marginal commentary from assorted players and prostitutes in the street sex scene. Less a linear narrative than a series of topically related field recordings, American Pimp offers an unglamorized vision of what the subjects refer to as “the game.”
Though well-received at its premiere Sundance Film Festival screening, the film had only a limited theatrical run.
“Early on,” says Allen Hughes, “we had, quite literally, multimillion-dollar offers on the movie, based on 10 minutes of footage. There had never been anything like a pimp documentary. And we’d wanted to do a big indie film release, like 500 theaters, with a sound track project that Dr. Dre was working on. But by the time it came out nationally a lot of those plans had been killed or fallen through. It was released in 30 theaters nationwide, and the sound track never got done.”
Following an extended run on HBO, American Pimp quickly became a cult home-video rental. So widespread was its popularity that Allen Hughes was recently stopped in Amsterdam by a fan who shouted, “American pimp!” and gave him a thumbs-up. All this subterranean celebrity makes the dual DVD/CD sound track release of American Pimp: Raw Outtakes and the Hard Truth an eagerly anticipated event.
The thing that troubled many viewers about American Pimp was its seeming lack of a clear moral stance on its subject matter. As revealed in Raw Outtakes, the brothers approached each interview as a loosely structured conversation, asking open-ended questions that led the interviewees in candid, often disturbing directions.
“The gift of hip-hop culture, of having family members who were in the life, was that we were able to talk to these guys on their level,” says Allen Hughes. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but if you ask a pimp,” and here Hughes goes into a stuffy voice, “‘Well, why do you pimp the vagina,’ he’s going to answer that way: ‘Well, ahum, I pimp the vagina because ...’
“The pimps talked to us like we were one of the boys; they were a lot more open than they’d normally be,” Hughes says.
Speaking to their subjects the way the interviewees spoke to them, Raw Outtakes unpacks the brothers’ shrewd technique in ways worthy of a film class lecture. The openness provided the original release’s most harrowing moments — such as scenes in which the sleek, shark-like Arizona hustler Bradley describes his predatory crawls through street-youth hangouts in search of new flesh to hawk, or putting his “goon hand” down on a recalcitrant prostitute.
Presenting blocks of unreleased, largely unedited footage, Raw Outtakes will disturb viewers who’ll cringe at hearing the articulate, urbane brothers throwing around “ho” and “bitch” as easily as do the pimps they interview.
But the trick to interviewing, as Truman Capote once said, is to make the subject think he’s interviewing you. The “lost” Snoop Dogg interview — the Holy Grail of American Pimp fans — is present on the DVD and sums up Capote’s dictum precisely.
And the full story, at last, can now be told.
Armed with a potent strain of herb, the brothers visited Snoop in the studio.
“After about a half-hour, Snoop disappeared,” says Allen. “We started to get a little nervous — ‘Where’s Snoop, we gotta do this’ — but it turned out that it just knocked him on his ass. He went and took a nap. And he came back, and went from talking about the life to talking about himself as a pimp. All this weird shit: ‘The pimps teach the children’ and so on. So when we finally saw the footage, we thought, ‘Oh. We can’t use this.’
“Actually,” Allen says, laughing hard now, “Snoop was pissed that we didn’t put it in.”Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer for the Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org