It’s not everyday that The Toronto International Film Festival features a documentary that honors a pimp, but then not every pimp is Iceberg Slim. Author of the 1969 pulp best seller Pimp: The Story Of My Life, Slim defined the rules of the game and also managed to pull himself out of it through a successful writing career. In his own way, Slim was a pioneer for African American authors with a unique voice that still resonates to this day. Though he never achieved mainstream success or acceptance in his lifetime, the legacy remains unquestioned. Director Jorge Hinojosa’s exhaustive, inventive, and entertaining new documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp honors the legend and tells his remarkable lifestory to introduce new audiences and fill in the gaps for longtime fans with questions.
As a child Iceberg Slim (or Robert Beck, if you prefer) was a straight A student with a promising future, but the usual setbacks and prejudices that affect all ostracized urban youth led him down another path. He became a pimp and one of the best, but that’s a lifestyle that can only end one of two ways. His ending was a prison term and during that time behind bars he vowed to give up the game and do something better with his life. He ended up marrying and having a family, taking up a job as an exterminator to pay the bills. Of course that never cooled his mind or made the stories of his life disappear. Eventually after telling his wife one unbelievable pimping story after another, she finally suggested that they write them down together. The result was Pimp: The Story Of My Life. It was picked up by a paperback publisher and became a hit.
Slim became a celebrity almost instantly, appearing masked on talk shows and pursued for interviews. He followed up his autobiography with books based on stories he’d heard throughout his life ranging from tales from a con man with whom he shared a prison cell, to a mafia book, and one of the first widely published novels about homosexuality. One of his books (Trick Baby) was turned into a film, he recorded an album (Reflections) and he was constantly on the road hosting lectures and giving interviews. Of course, the publisher was crooked, so he never got his proper royalties and the material was too incendiary to switch to a major publisher at the time. So he was ultimately penniless despite the success. Eventually his wife left him, taking the children with her and Slim died alone never able to benefit from or fully appreciate the legacy he left behind.
This documentary was clearly a labor of love for Jorge Hinojosa that was years in the making. His passion for the project is clear, conducting incredibly insightful interviews with every member of Slim’s family as well as academic experts and fans like Chris Rock, Snoop Dog, and Ice T (who also produced the movie). Their stories and reflections are cut together with an extensive collection of photographs, a few fleeting documentary interviews with Slim, and some incredible animation to dramatize key moments in the man’s life. Backed with a constant soundtrack of beats and told with lightening pacing, it’s an incredibly entertaining and slickly produced film that flies by. With a life this eventful and unbelievable, the placid PBS doc style just wouldn’t do, now would it?
Though ultimately a film that honors its subject, Hinojosa wisely doesn’t devolve to hero worship. All of Slim’s rough edges are explored with the family interviews often dipping into Rashomon territory with conflicting stories of whether or not he did in fact keep practicing his pimping ways to support his family. The overall tone is pretty playful and joyous though, with the on camera fans sharing hilarious and heartfelt recollections about how much the books mean to them (Rock even claims he gives a copy of Pimp to everyone on the set when he finishes a movie). The subject matter might not attract all audiences, but it’s hard to imagine that there will be many better documentaries this year. Docs about pimpin’ ain’t easy folks. This is a special one.