Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp: Toronto Review

Cult figure gets his due in entertaining, informative bio.

Exec-producer Ice-T nods to the roots of his rap persona with Jorge Hinojosa's doc, which profiles hip-hop icon Robert Beck.

TORONTO — A good deal deeper than it needs to be given its subject's status in pop culture -- the influence of Robert Beck's books is seen in everything from Ice-T's early records to Pimp My Ride -- Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp chooses not simply to celebrate an icon's seedy glamour but to examine who he was and what became of him. A large audience of hip-hop fans is assured, but newcomers will also find it involving.

Beck, whose 1969 memoir became an underground classic and spawned a series of books, was a Chicago native whose childhood seemed to guarantee a troubled relationship with women: he was surrounded by prostitutes at his mother's beauty salon; he watched as his mom left the only upstanding man in his life for an abusive seducer; he was sexually molested by his babysitter.

After around two decades of working as a pimp, Beck found the job's side effects (drug addiction, prison time) too much to take and retired. After settling down with his first wife, the two turned his stockpile of colorful stories into the book Pimp: The Story of My Life, which rewarded him with fame if not fortune.

Pimp remains an underground hit, and Hinojosa talks to admirers ranging from celebrities -- Chris Rock gives the book out as a wrap gift on his films -- to academics, including one tweedy white fellow who unintentionally earns laughs when discussing Beck's dealings with "hos." Hinojosa works through an outline of Beck's life and career, illustrating stories with motion graphics constructed of old pulp-novel illustrations. (Fans of art photographer Thomas Allen, who does this sort of thing brilliantly, will wish he'd been recruited to help out.)

Beck died in 1992, but filmed plenty of interviews in his heyday; he's seen here as an eloquent character whose style faded only slightly with age. We also meet two ex-wives and three beautiful daughters, whose perspectives on the man range wildly; one of the daughters, clearly a little too sympathetic to Dad's failings, is responsible for the film's funniest moment.

That moment, though surprising and hilarious, highlights the dilemma of Iceberg Slim: Though Beck swore his tale was a cautionary one, meant to keep readers from having their minds "street-poisoned," it was told with such panache that generations of kids have sought to emulate him. Ice-T, in fact, recalls trying to use the book as a how-to guide in his teens.

The rapper's story is funny because the attempt failed, leaving him to find more socially acceptable forms of moneymaking. But it's hard not to wonder how many Iceberg Slim fans weren't so lucky.

Production Company: Final Level Entertainment

Director: Jorge Hinojosa

Producers: Danny Bresnik, Jeff Scheftel

Executive producers: Ice-T, Jorge Hinojosa

Director of photography: Kelly Jones

Music: CunninLynguists

Production Design: Kit Stolen, Chris Hutchings, Barry Jackson

Editor: Danny Bresnik

Sales: UTA

No rating, 88 minutes