It's hard out here for a pimp writer
I know I've heard the name Iceberg Slim somewhere before seeing the documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, but I was never aware of his literary work. Maybe Iceberg Slim was mentioned in American Pimp, the 1999 Hughes Brothers documentary about the world's second oldest profession.
After seeing Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, I really want to read some of the man's books. Born Robert Beck (1918-1992), Iceberg Slim was a persona and a pen name that built stories from Beck's real life. Beck's was a life hard-lived. It was filled with violence, abandonment, and abuse. The excerpts of Iceberg Slim books sound raw like Hubert Selby, Jr., but the language is different. And still, both authors seemed to find the dark poetry of ugly urban life.
The Iceberg Slim books are rife with slang of the pimp game, and Pimp: The Story of My Life, his autobiographical debut novel, included a glossary for those not familiar with the language. (Sort of like the glossaries included with William S. Burroughs's Junkie and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.) As an entry point to the story of Robert Beck's life, this documentary seems like a great way in.
[This review originally ran as part of our DOC NYC 2012 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical release.]
Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp
Like any movie that celebrates a writer, there's a kind of evangelical zeal about the work that's been produced. Chris Rock says that Pimp is one of his favorite books of all time. Henry Rollins is there boosting Iceberg Slim's writing as well, and ditto actor Bill Duke. Snoop Dogg sings praises on his couch, with two Ugly Dolls right behind him. A number of black writers also speak fondly of Iceberg Slim for his work, which remains as observant as James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison but was earthier and lurid, and in that way more real.
Ice-T, who produced the film and is also one of its interview subjects, says that if you open up an Iceberg Slim book to any page and read paragraph, it's the craziest shit you've ever read. (Ice-T also offers up a hilarious anecdote about using the writings of Iceberg Slim to play pimp with a friend of his.) The first paragraph of Pimp goes like this, recounting Beck's sexual abuse at a very young age:
What's fascinating is seeing footage of Robert Beck talking about being a writer and being a pimp. There's the infamous interview on The Joe Pyne Show, where Beck wears a black mask that makes him resemble The Invisible Man (Wells, not Ellison) or some sort of supervillain. He's pure charisma, with a sonorous sort of voice that could persuade people to do anything. But he talks about pimping frankly and without shame, and he does lots of unconscionable things as part of the game. It was a way to live, and something he couldn't abandon even when he tried to go legit and start his own family.
To hear about his family life is like hearing about a dreamike reformation (at least for a while). Beck meets a beautiful young woman named Betty in Southern California when he tries to ditch the pimp life. He was dressed as dashing as ever -- a knight in shining velvet -- and she was just a young gal working at a burger joint. They were an interracial couple when it was still somewhat taboo, and lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood where they wouldn't be judged. It's because of Betty that Beck started to write books, and we realize how positive this love between them was, and how strong. Yet when we first see Betty in the film, it's well after Beck passed away. She smokes in bed wearing a nightgown, her voice gruff, and one eye is a milky turquoise from a cataract.
While jumping between the literary life, the pimp life, and the life of the family man, director Jorge Hinojosa also delves into some of his psychology, trying to find connections between his troubled childhood in Chicago and his adult relationships. Amid all the archival footage, photos, and talking heads, there are stylish injections of animation and pulp art. We glide around illustrated cutouts of hookers, tricks, and pimps taken from magazines and paperback covers. It sets the life of Robert Beck into the literary world painted by Iceberg Slim -- maybe there was no division. Some of these moments remind me of Thomas Allen's brilliant photos and collage art in Uncovered.
Hinjosa also has an interesting invisible framework for the film built around three major riots that occurred during Beck's life: the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the Watts Riots in 1965, and the LA riots of 1992. They're almost like what Halley's Comet was to Mark Twain. It's coincidental maybe, but it sets Beck's life and his work in a time of passionate violence and changing race relations in the 20th century. He wrote as a reflection of the tumultuous times in which he lived. The documentary is honest with only the right kinds of embellishment for flavor. The story of how Iceberg Slim got his name is all about the kind of invention through storytelling that's rooted in the national character. There's a reason for the evangelical zeal and why his work remains in print.
In some ways I feel like the documentary misses a step after the dissolution of Beck's first marriage. The portrait of Beck in his waning years doesn't seem well explored. Given, there might not have been much to his life after a certain point, but it feels like there's a piece or two missing. Even Beck's family seems like it could have been given more time on screen. Betty is fascinating, especially since two of her daughters think she's crazy. Camille, one of their daughters, also seems fragile and manic, but more than her mother. It made me wonder what else had gone on during their lives -- what little tragedies, what major problems. There probably could have been a Crumb-like documentary based on the Beck family alone.
Yet I don't hold too much of that against Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp. The film's ability to explore the cultural, literary, social, and personal impact of Robert Beck is its primary focus. It does that right. Most importantly, the film's made me excited to go find the work of Robert Beck and to see if it's as crazy good as everyone says it is.