THE HUGHES BROTHERS' documentary American Pimp opens with a montage of middle-class white Americans expressing total contempt for the practice of pimping. What's striking about this opening is not so much the angry and often ridiculous comments (it's easy to get random people on the street to say stupid things), but that the outraged whites are filmed in the downtown area of a big American city. The motives behind this are clear: First, downtown represents the locus of mainstream capital and power; and second, the downtown area is not far from the "tracks," as pimps call their underworld--those hidden and often bombed-out urban zones where the flesh industry thrives.

The Hughes Brothers immediately establish this contrast between the social worlds (white heaven, black hell) because they want to say exactly what an American pimp is. What are they about? What do they do? Why do they look and act like that? "The pimp is the most mythical figure in black culture, but no one has ever really seen one, or if they have, they've never talked to one," explained Albert Hughes in a recent interview. In order to decode this "mystery" the filmakers have to flesh out the pimp, make him coherent and visible. They do this by forming a rigid and clear system of "binary oppositions," which enables one to recognize the meanings, shapes, and shades of an American pimp.

It was the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss who came up with the idea that inchoate societies produce meaning though a system of "binary oppositions," meaning they know what "cooked" is because it's the opposite of "raw." The same thing is at work in this documentary. We understand what a pimp and his world is about by seeing what he is not: a pimp's world is not large, stable, safe, or bland (that is mainstream society); a pimp's world is small, glamorous, highly unstable, and evanescent. This is why the Hughes Brothers forcefully place the pimp's world not on the margins of mainstream society, but completely outside of it, in a cultural vacuum where the pimp invents everything from scratch.

"Some brothers get mad 'cause you say 'nigga,' right? Well, 'bitch,' at least to my ho's, that's more of a pet name, you know what I'm saying? If I come in the house talking about 'sweetie pie' and 'honey,' the bitch gonna look at me like something wrong, you know?" That's Payroll, one of the seven or so pimps the Hughes Brothers interview. Like all the other subjects, Payroll (an avuncular mack who works in Las Vegas) is acutely aware of his position in life: the opposite of that of "squares," as pimps call men who have regular jobs, family life, health insurance, and homes in the suburbs. The pimps continually mock the square. They call him uncharismatic ("They don't have what it takes to shake like a pimp."); they imply that the pimp lives a life closer to some essential truth ("Pussy gonna sell when cotton and corn won't!"); and, most importantly, they brag about access to physical pleasures that the "squares" only dream of ("Man, I once had a woman on every limb. You know what that's like? That's heaven.").

Though Payroll, Fillmore Slim, Sir Captain, Bishop Don Magic Juan, Rosebudd, and Gorgeous Dre (the primary pimps) entertain us with their crazy and often poetic rap (in the '70s sense of the word), after 30 minutes the pleasant haze vanishes, and a heavy sadness settles in. We start to wonder about the women these supposedly charming pimps control and hold in such low regard; we wonder about these women's backgrounds, about how they were talked into such a desperate, risky, and unrewarding business (they give their pimps "120%" of the money they earn). It's at this point that the pimp's fast talk, bright clothes, outrageous jewelry, and expensive cars are no longer comic but tragic. Tragic because these glittering things can't cover up the harsh system of abuse and exploitation that structures their darkling society--or "bubble," as one pimp calls it.

In the end, the Hughes Brothers manage to not only demystify the pimp, but to also expose a very gloomy side of American urban life.