Monday, July 25, 2005

Please, Save Us From the Pimps

By Esther Iverem Editor and Film Critic

Will somebody please save me from all these pimps?

As much as the new, much-hyped film, "Hustle and Flow" is a quality, textured drama about the struggle of one down-and-out man in Memphis, it is also the latest film, video or music, dripping with hip-hop appeal, which asks our sympathies for a lifestyle that degrades women. It also asks that we, at least temporarily, share the pimp's view of women, and his vision of what it takes to "make it." As the regretful refrain goes in the film's signature song—it's hard out here for a pimp.

Many rappers, such as 50 Cent, along with some pop stars such as Kid Rock, have promoted the pimp lifestyle with titles such as "Po Pimp," "The Great White Pimp," "Pimp of the Century," "Pimp Talk," "Chart Pimp," "Definition of a Pimp," "Pimp Your Paper," "Pimp My Girl," "Guerilla Pimpin," "Early Morning Stoned Pimp," "Big Ol Pimps," "Pimp Arrest" and, finally, "Pimp Story Street Talk, Vol. 1." Some artists even take on the moniker for themselves: Skinny Pimp, Pimp Daddy Nash, Pimp C, Evil Pimp, Pimp Black, Pimp Daddy, Geez Pimp, Star Pimp and Pimp Playa Hustlas.

With all this focus by the hip hop music industry on men who manage prostitutes, it is no wonder that Hollywood sees potential dollar signs with "Hustle and Flow," and, perhaps more importantly, equates the pimp and prostitution lifestyle with urban African American culture.

Films of this genre, starting in the 1970's with "The Mack" and "Dolemite," always focus on and glorify the pimp. The female prostitute—along with her hard-core realities that often include AIDS, drug abuse, child prostitution, mental illness, sterility and death—are swept under the rug in the service of keeping the narrative flowing and pimp-centered.

Popular documentaries on the subject, such as "Pimps Up, Hos Down" and "American Pimp," keep us centered in an almost worshipful tone that focuses on the pimp's colorful street names, such as Bishop Don Magic Juan, C-Note, Gorgeous Dre and Mr. Whitefolks. Cameras offer a sweeping view of their full-length fur coats, lime green gator shoes, gold rings the size of paperweights, gold chains heavy enough to tow your car, and, of course, limousines and fancy cars—even if that silver Rolls Royce is actually only rented for the evening (or filming).

In "Hustle and Flow," we are guided into the world of prostitution by the talented and mesmerizing Terrence Dashon Howard, who turns an ordinary film into an exceptional one. In contrast to the pimp image of yesteryear, Howard's DJay lives in a jainky house in the hood in Memphis. His three hookers, Lexus, Shug and Nola, live there with him, as a sort of family with DJay as the provider, protector and manager. DJay drives a beat down car, his clothes look barely washed but he does enjoy one of the benefits of pimpdom—getting his hair curled and styled with a hot iron.

But don't be fooled, the essential pimp-hooker relationship, master and servant, is still in full effect. DJay's eventual migration to music—and his attempt at rapping—puts his years of pimping on par with the legal hustle of the music industry. It's all a hustle, the film suggests to us, and the connection to hip hop, which has renamed women as female dogs and prostitutes anyway, feels like a natural and dangerous fit. This pimp, with his sexy determination, is made more socially acceptable. And besides, he takes his ladies along for the ride to seeming success—Nola as an impromptu business manager, and Shug as a love interest and background singer. It is hardly remarkable when DJay strikes the pregnant Shug, urging her to sing her silly song hook with more soul. When, in a fit of anger, he puts Lexus and her infant son out of the house, the scene is rendered with some comedy, as director Craig Brewer shows us that the mouthy, domineering Black women is once again put in her place.

It may be hard out here for a pimp but it should be. It's even harder out here for those of us who are regularly assaulted and branded by this so-called "pimpology," and who are asked to embrace this bastard creation as who we are.

Esther Iverem's forthcoming book is Living in Babylon (Africa World Press).

— July 22, 2005

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