Who’s your daddy?

Entrepreneurs of the skin trade fill the spotlight in the Hughes brothers’ latest.

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The Hughes brothers open their hot-button documentary, American Pimp, with on-the-street interviews, asking primarily white middle-class citizens what they think of pimps. The replies are loaded with venom: They’re despicable manipulators, predators with no moral sense.

Some of what the pimps themselves say during the next 90 minutes does little to discredit this point of view. “I’m the one their mamas warned them about,” brags one, while another asserts, “Every bitch has thought about being a ho at least once in her life.” So why spend the time in the company of these men?

Because Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) have approached their subject like ethnographers interested in discerning the pimp point of view, and while the actions of these professional charmers is repellant, they are utterly fascinating to watch. Pimps are portrayed as snake-oil salesmen who peddle flesh as their cure-all tonic, dangerous charismatics who convince emotionally crippled women that the twisted form of love they offer via prostitution is just what they need. “It’s a psychological game,” is one explanation of this enormously complex power dynamic: “Mental manipulation is 99.9 percent of the pimp’s game.”

The pimps interviewed are smooth talkers, entertaining raconteurs who easily captivate their audience. There are no apologies offered here, but some surprisingly sanguine observations come from men whose flamboyant fashion puts Liberace to shame and who are known by equally outrageous monikers such as Rosebudd (the film’s unofficial narrator), Charm, C-Note, Payroll, Gorgeous Dre, Sir Captain, Bishop Don Magic Juan and Fillmore Slim.

Few prostitutes are interviewed in American Pimp, but one says something so simply profound that there’s the shock of recognition: What kind of pimp these men become depends on the kind of man they were before they entered the life. There is no homogeneity to pimps (despite the uniformity portrayed in blaxploitation films such as The Mack), and the interviewees are portrayed as strong individuals. Interestingly enough, the one pimp who comes off as completely despicable is the sole white man, the proprietor of a legal Nevada brothel (where working conditions are much better for women) who manages to appear more exploitative than a street hustler who regularly puts his prostitutes in harm’s way.

This pretzel logic epitomizes the pimp mind-set, and also points out a key aspect of this provocative film: race. How does the pimp serve as a cultural model for black men? It’s a loaded question, and the Hughes brothers acknowledge that trying to discern the answer was one of the factors motivating them to make this documentary.

They don’t come to any easy conclusions, but now that the degrading language of pimp life (“bitch” as a vicious pet name) has entered mainstream usage and their get-rich-at any-cost-philosophy is more embraced than scorned, American Pimp serves as a fun house mirror reflecting society at large.

Allen and Albert Hughes may deplore the actions of these men, but they can’t help but admire their panache.

Opens Friday, exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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