Given that he described running a stable of prostitutes as “ghastly” and wrote about his escape from “the grimy catacombs of the ghetto,” Robert Beck—better known to the world as Iceberg Slim—might seem an unlikely icon for less ambivalent chroniclers of the gangster life. But for the voices in Jorge Hinojosa’s documentary who cite the writer as a formative influence, it’s not Beck’s regret but his realism that distinguished him. The combination of unsentimental rigor and pulp poetry with which the author chronicled his life on the street made him an instant sensation, especially since Beck’s first autobiographical novel, Pimp, dovetailed with the shift from civil rights to black power.
Although its famous interview subjects come off like parody versions of themselves (Ice-T admits he tried to use the book as a guide for starting his own streetwalking business; Snoop Dogg is interviewed with two Uglydolls propped on the couch behind him), Portraitof a Pimp doesn’t fully come to terms with the contradictions of its subject—nor, unsurprisingly, does the white academic who freely uses terms like “ho” and “bottom bitch.” Beck’s widow, his ex-wife and three daughters paint the man as someone whose success only complicated his life, estranging him from his family and eventually saddling him with crippling inertia. Pimping ain’t easy, but going straight is no picnic, either.
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