There are probably quite a few iceberg jokes I could make in regards to Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp if I wanted to take the time, but the most obvious is also the most apropos. Its set-up involves the bulk of any iceberg actually being below the surface, and so we can't trust what we see in the open air to represent the entire mass. This is also true about Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, the late author and reformed criminal--something Jorge Hinojosa's documentary regularly forgets.
I'll admit to hating Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp when it first started. The initial commentators, including Ice T (who also produced the film), Chris Rock, Snoop Lion, and an effusive Henry Rollins, as well as critics and scholars and other expected talking heads, bend language every which way to praise Slim for his talents as a pimp without ever acknowledging how despicable pimping is as a profession or the effects it has on the women these men prey upon. It's a topic Hinojosa avoids engaging with throughout the entire movie, seemingly deaf to Slim's own denouncing of the lifestyle. Within minutes of showing archival footage of the author saying that his books, and in particular his debut novel Pimp, are meant to discourage others from walking the same path, Hinojosa cuts to Ice T talking about using the novels as manuals when he was a young pimp learning the game. Because, you know, it's a funny story. The hoes don't mind. Who wants to talk about serious stuff when the other side of this is so glamorous?
Luckily, Iceberg Slim wanted to talk about that stuff, and so by sheer force of personality, the subject walks it like he talks it right past his tone-deaf profiler. When it comes down to it, the outside commentators are the least interesting part of Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp anyway. The material that counts is what either comes out of Slim's own mouth or from those who were there with him. Via testimony from the writer's ex-wives, daughters, and his longtime publisher, a narrative emerges of a troubled young man who made some wrong choices and then turned those mistakes into a whole new life for himself. Slim remains an enigmatic figure, but knowing where he came from and how he got to where he ended up goes a long way to providing context for his contributions to literature, pop culture, and the African American experience.
If there's anything that Hinojosa and his assembled interviewees gets right, it's that last part. By the end of Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, you will understand why Iceberg Slim and his books deserve to be the focus of a documentary--which almost allows you to forgive how often it seems the documentarian does not. It also serves the purpose of being a really good commercial for Robert Beck's prose. I now realize how little I knew about the nature and intention of Pimp, Trick Baby, and the others, and need to add them to my reading queue toot suite.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.