Ice T has done some very special film work over the past few years, chronicling the influences that made both his rap career possible, and exposing some of the roots of hip hop. It’s the same discharching of ideological debt that Snoop Dogg has constantly repaid and that the RZA accomplished by finally making his own kung fu flick, “The Man with the Iron Fists”, instad of sampling them. The first documentary Ice T did in this vein was his hip hop documentary, “The Art of Rap”, which took us into the technique’s and motivations of rappers. “Portrait of a Pimp” takes us into the life story of Ice-T’s primary influence, the pimp turned author Iceberg Slim.
Iceberg Slim’s books were very familiar to me growing up in Oakland, California in the 1990s. They were all over barber shops, heavily marked up and checked out of school and public libraries, and constantly referenced by people in the neighborhood. Iceberg Slim was famous for being the primary writer to escape the world of pimping and writing stories about it in great detail. In reality, only his first book, “Pimp: The Story of My Life” was about pimping, his other books told stories of con men of all colors, and his ouevere even included a book called “Mama Black Widow”, which was an empathetic portrait of a black homosexual named Otis Tilson.
Of course, before I was even born, Iceberg Slim’s books had caused a stir in the urban community. His books were known for an unflinching, unglamorized portrait of black street life in World War II and post War America. Ice T the MC, actually came at rapping, MCing, and hip hop, through the works of Iceberg Slim, quoting whole sections of his books along with other hustler rhymes. When T was introduced through hip hop through the Sugarhill Gang’s landmark 1979 “Rappers Delight”, it was the pimp verbiage of Iceberg Slim he turned to to write his own raps.
The documentary “Portrait of a Pimp”, directed by Jorge Hinosa and Executive Produced by Ice T, as well as featuring him as a talking head, is not based on Iceberg Slim, real name Robert Beck’s, life as a pimp. Instead, the documentary is a cradle to grave portrait of Robert Beck the man, tracing his life from his youth, the disappointments that led him into being a pimp, his jail sentence, his relatiionship with his mother, wife, and children, as well as his success as an author and his reclusive death in the early 1990s. In short, it’s a portrait of the man that humanizes him even more than his literature already served to.
For anybody familiar with Slim’s work, the documentary does the amazing work of adding flesh to the stories Iceberg told in “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” The film actually shows pictures of several key figures in Beck’s life, from his mother, to his mother’s boyfriend Henry Upshaw, to the woman who turned him out, Pepper Hibbits, to his nanny who sexually molested him as a boy, Maude. It amazed me to see figures I read about in Beck’s work come to life in pictures, especially being that this activity took place so long ago, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s primarily.
Robert Beck was born in 1918 in a violently racially divided Chicago, and was brought up in the decade of Prohibition and big time Gangsters like Al Capone and the black pimping king of Chicago, Baby Bell. It was also a time of violent race riots such as the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, which were incited by a black kid swimming into the white area.
Beck was raised primarily by a single mother, who was a hairdresser with a clientele that included pimps and prostitutes. One of the prime hurts of Beck’s life was that his mother totally played for a fool a man named Henry Upshaw, who was a benevolent father figure for Beck, totally stripped him spiritually and financially, in cahoots with a slick hustler. Beck was also molested and forced to perform oral sex on his baby sitter, Maude. These incidents are pointed towards as ones that hardened Beck’s attitude from a very young age.
Beck was also a very smart young man, graduating at the age of 15 with a 98.4 average, while by his own admision, paying little attention in class. He was able to go to Tuskeegee Institute, a contemporary of black writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two men of leters whom he’d join in the black literary pantheon through a more circumstitious route. Beck tells us in interview footage that his mother suggested since he liked to be around the crimminal element so much, he become a crimminal lawyer and get paid to run with street people, which in hindsight, Beck realized was one of the most brilliant ideas he never followed.
Beck ended up pimping and serving jail terms. The impetus for turning his life around was when he recieved news that his mother was gravely ill and living in Los Angeles. He was able to write a letter that got him out of jail. When he went to LA, he would end up courting Betty, who would marry him and with whom he had his beautiful daughters. Betty is featured in interviews in the film, conducted with her being sick, before she passed away, and she comes across as a tough, no nonsense midwestern woman, with a big heart and a talent for motivation and hard work that ultimately took Robert Beck beyond the status many hustlers of his day remained in, burned out old men telling stories on the street about how bad they used to be.
Beck was exterminating and killing vermin to support his family, a fact the film uses one of his actual business cards to substantiate. In the evenings, after getting “dapped down” in slacks, starched shirt and brim hat, he’d dictate stories of his life in “the life”, to his incredulous wife Betty, who would use her top notch secretarial skills to get down. Together, they created his books, Beck acting them out and relaying his experiences and his wife creating, structuring, and recording right along with him.
In 1969 Beck’s books hit, taking advantage of the same literary civil rights and black power inspired wave that brought attention to Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land”, Alex Haley and Malcom X’s “The Autobiography of Malcom X”, Cecil Brown’s “The Life and Times of Mr. Jiveass Nigger”, Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”, H. Rap Brown’s “Die Nigger Die”, and many other books that chronicled the black (male) experience in America.
The film covers Beck’s period as a celebrated author, and also takes him into his last years, in the Los Angeles of 1992 and the LA Riots, where Beck died from complications of diabetes.
The film features several interesting talking heads, from Chris Rock, to Bill Duke, to Leon Issac Kennedy, to the anthropologist Richard Milner, who wrote an interesting Bay Area based study of pimps called “Black Players” back in the ’70s with his wife Karen Milner, to Dr. Todd Boyd, Quincy Jones, jazz musician Red Holloway, and punk artist Henry Rollins. These individuals all testify to the accurate, unique, and chilling abilities of Beck as a story teller while also vouching for the brutality and flash and dash of the world he lived in, that they either knew his world was authentic because they lived it as well, or were fascinated by how close Beck’s work brought them into contact with that world.
I’m the most proud of Ice T as a commentator in this film as well as a producer because T gets the oppurtunity to do something to perserve the legacy of the man who inspired his rap. I’ve heard T say many times before that his aim through his rap was not only to depict the glamorous side of the street life, but to also make people listen to the “B side” of that record, the side that includes the penitentiary, drug addiction, death and disappointment. This is an impulse I’ve always admired the most in T’s records, from “High Rollers”, to “You Played Yourself”, to “Drama.” It’s just that impulse that T describes as what he took away from Beck’s work as Iceberg Slim, making this film also a brilliant example of how inspiration works.
All in all, my favorite commentators are the ones closest to him, Iceberg’s ex wife Betty, and his daughters. Nothing humanizes the man more than to show these women to whom he was so devoted after years of abusing women. His wife comes off as exactly the type of tough no nonsense woman he needed to make his eventual mark on history, even at one point relating an anecdote that when he stopped writing and she was supporting the family by working, she left him, because she refused to be pimped.
Beck’s daughters are beautiful, lively, intelligent, and spoke of a loving, caring father, who definitely retained the cold demeanor of his past life but also was the most articulate, broad based person they could have ever asked for as a father. Sadly, Camille Beck passed in 2010, before the release of the film, but she is preserved here for posterity. Betty Beck, Beck’s ex wife passed in 2009.
Beck was also known as a man who was passionately involved in black affairs. Though not covered in the doc, I remember reading in a Black Panther biography that Beck regularly bought the Panther newspaper and was very supportive of the Panther cause. Beck felt much of his turn down the wrong path had to do with the oppurtunities blacks faced during his time. That mix of street smarts and social consciousness also reminds me of his rap music heir, Ice T. Ice T is also good friends with Chuck D of Public Enemy and he has been in several political rap scandals through the course of his career. In “Portrait of a Pimp”, Ice T succeds greatly in humanizing a man who gave voice to the struggle on the streets of black male hustlers in modern America. This film is a must see both as entertainment, as well as history, serving as both a part of the black story in the 20th century as well as a cautionary tale of where a life spent chasing fast money can end. I’m sure that Iceberg Slim would feel that if he could warn people away from that as much as possible, his life served a great purpose.