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Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp explores a cultural touchstone

Gregg Reese | 2/13/2013, 5 p.m.

Urban fiction ironically was jump-started by a White-owned company, Holloway House Publishing.

Originally a purveyor of magazines geared to the porn industry, the company recognized an unrequited market for action literature catering to the African American working class.

Among their more notorious works, and one that would become a hallmark of the reading list of Black adolescents, was the provocatively titled "Pimp: The Story of My Life," and its author, Robert Lee Maupin. Written under the nom de plume Iceberg Slim, it became a legend in inner-city neighborhoods across the continent.

"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp," an entry at this year's Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), seeks to look behind the mythology of the man whose 1992 death was overshadowed by the L.A. riots. The film's director, Jorge Hinojosa, was introduced to his subject through his professional relationship as manager of rapper Ice-T (who also produced the documentary), one of the legions of fans who adopted this anti-hero as a role model.

The end result is a skillful blend of meticulously archived photographs and film footage, animation, and interviews with the hustler's contemporaries, family, cultural critics, and a litany of media and show-biz luminaries who assumed elements of his persona, including Snoop Dogg, Katt Williams, and the one and only Bishop Don "Majic" Juan.

It is a good depiction of Slim's life, particularly from a first-time director.

Paradoxically, Iceberg Slim's literary catalog--which transitioned from its initial entry as a back street bestseller into a book translated into a half dozen languages--became the subject of study at elite institutions of higher learning, and has been favorably compared in some literary circles to the writing of William Burroughs, "Naked Lunch," and Jean Genet, "The Blacks."

The documentary touches on the residual dysfunction that may have tainted Slim's relationship with his three daughters. It also makes no final assessment of how his past life might have warped their adulthood (one daughter reveals she was the subject of a large-scale narcotics arrest). Additionally, it fails to clarify how his rapport with his mother, who raised him in middle-class comfort (he briefly attended Tuskegee Institute at the same time as another Black writer of note--Ralph Ellison), resulted in his becoming one of the foremost misogynists of modern times.

Nonetheless, the impact of Iceberg Slim cannot be denied, because his fiction has transcended the neat compartmentalizing of the Black adventure novel. His is a legacy that solidified the genre of urban fiction, and the subcategory of street lit which followed.

Still later, his influence informed the shaping of the emerging Hip-Hop culture (especially the attendant elements of misogyny and nihilism). More recently, as the 21st century progresses, the word "pimp" has transcended the lexicon of "cool," or "hip" and become a fixture of common conversation. The word has come full circle from its original meaning as a noun categorizing a man engaged in pandering or working as a procurer, to a verb referring to embellishing or modifying, ala "Pimp my ride."

The definition for an activity associated with sleaze and depravity is now a term with a more positive connotation.

"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp," will screen at the Pan African Film Festival in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Sunday, Feb. 17 (9:15 p.m.) and Monday, Feb. 18 (4:45 p.m.). Plans are in the works for a spring, 2013 theatrical release.