A labor-of-love biodoc that nonetheless offers a warts-and-all evaluation of its subject, “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp” intrigues and illuminates as it considers the life and work of the notorious ex-procurer turned bestselling author whose raw and brutal books — most based on his own experiences — have been favorably compared with the literature of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and other chroniclers of the African-American experience. Fest exposure and appreciative reviews could lead to limited theatrical play before homevid release.
To construct this “Portrait,” first-time helmer Jorge Hinojosa adroitly interweaves well-chosen archival photos and footage, including a revealing early ’70s Q&A originally presented on the PBS series “Black Journal,” and several newly filmed interviews with academics and acquaintances, family members and celebrity admirers. Hinojosa, long-time manager of rapper-actor Ice-T, who serves as pic’s co-executive producer and an oncamera interviewee, also employs apt excerpts from Slim’s books, with particular emphasis on material from “Pimp: The Story of My Life.”
Much like that breakthrough autobiography, “Portrait” recounts in vivid detail Slim’s early days as a petty criminal, drug addict and hard-core pimp who drifted in and out of prison until hitting rock bottom in the early ’60s during a lengthy stint in solitary confinement. Pic duly notes how he was shaped by corrupting influences — including a treacherous mom, who coldly betrayed the one man Slim ever viewed as a father figure — but, again like the book, it stops well short of making excuses or rationalizations.
Indeed, “Portrait” repeatedly emphasizes that although “Pimp: The Story of My Life” has been widely misinterpreted (more often than not, by its most fervent fans) as a celebration of thug life, Slim (real name: Robert Beck), who died in 1992, always claimed he wrote the book as a cautionary fable about what he described as “my ghastly life.”
But it’s a fable that, even after he cleaned up his act, Slim could not write on his own.
During oncamera interviews, a frail yet feisty (and conspicuously Caucasian) Betty Mae Beck describes how, after meeting and marrying Slim in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, she strongly encouraged him to tell his story, and wound up writing it down as he dictated it to her. The pic indicates that Beck (who died in 2009) performed similar duties as Slim completed subsequent books, and proved irreplaceable — as a collaborator, at least — following their breakup in the 1980s.
“Portrait” abounds in the sort of ironies and contrasts that can make a biodoc fascinating even to auds totally unfamiliar with its subject. All of Slim’s books (including “Trick Baby,” filmed in 1972) originally appeared as paperbacks issued by a third-tier publisher, yet sold millions of copies.
And while the pic details his enduring influence on interviewees such as Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Bill Duke and, of course, Ice-T, who says his stage name is a tribute to the author, it doesn’t shy away from suggesting Slim took several detours from the straight and narrow long after his supposed reformation.
Tech values are first-rate. Particularly striking are transitional sequences that use animated montages of everything from paintings and photographs to lurid paperback cover illustrations. Included in the mix are photos of mid-20th-century Chicago that, according to the end credits, were taken for Look Magazine by Stanley Kubrick.