'Pimp': Film Review

Palmer delivers a powerful performance in this well-made blaxploitation throwback.
11/9/2018

Keke Palmer plays a young woman who takes over her father's illicit business in this gritty urban drama executive produced by Lee Daniels.

Fans of the blaxploitation era will get a nostalgic kick out of Christine Crokos' feature directorial debut. Starring Keke Palmer (a long way removed from her childhood role in Akeelah and the Bee) in the title role, Pimp is an engrossing melodrama that could easily have played to enthusiastic grindhouse audiences in the 1970s. Executive produced by Lee Daniels, the film manages simultaneously to feel feminist and utterly retrograde while proving fast-paced and entertaining.

Viewers will know what they're in for from the film's very first line. "First time I sold pussy, I was 10 years old," Wednesday (Palmer), known as "Wen" for short, solemnly informs us in a voiceover. Wen came by her unusual profession naturally. Her father, Midnight John (DMX), was a pimp by trade and was clearly grooming his daughter to one day follow in his footsteps. "The only thing you can trust is your money," he advises her when she's still a young girl. "Never let a bitch get close to your heart."

Wen gets in the illegal game far earlier than she or her father probably bargained for when he's murdered and she takes over the business. When we first see her as an adult, she's clearly proved successful in her chosen line of work. She makes enough money to take care of both her drug-addicted mother (Aunjanue Ellis) as well as her girlfriend Nikki (Haley Ramm), who's been her best friend since childhood.

When Wen runs into money trouble in order to cover her mother's bail, Nikki offers to hit the streets. It's an offer that Wen initially resists, but she eventually relents when Nikki insists, "It's just business." But it's when Destiny (Vanessa Morgan), a beautiful stripper/prostitute, expresses a desire to go to work for Wen that things truly get complicated. The loss of one of his prized girls doesn't sit well with pimp Kenny (Edi Gathegi, a truly chilling villain), who makes it clear that he won't tolerate any competition, especially from a mere woman, although he does express some grudging respect for Wen when things finally come to a head between the two.  

"Your game ain't that bad for a bitch," he says, admiringly, just before ordering one of his henchmen to inflict some damage on her. "Good luck," he adds as he leaves the room.

The film eventually lapses into familiar action mechanics in its violent final act. But along the way it offers an impressively compelling depiction of its gritty milieu as well as a moving portrait of the tender, loving relationship between Wen and Nikki. Writer-director Crokos keeps the proceedings moving at a pace brisk enough to help one overlook the familiar plot dynamics, and the exceedingly blunt, profanity-laden dialogue often proves memorable.

The strongest element of all is Palmer's thoroughly gripping performance. While the character could easily have lapsed into silliness or caricature, Palmer displays a compellingly grounded mixture of toughness and vulnerability that make Wen sympathetic throughout, no easy feat considering her profession. Pam Grier couldn't have done it any better.

Production: Adrenaline Entertainment, 1821 Pictures
Distributor: Vertical
Cast: Keke Palmer, Haley Ramm, Aunjanue Ellis, Vanessa Morgan, Edi Gathegi, DMX
Director-screenwriter: Christine Crokos
Producers: Alexis Varouxakis, Victoria Bousis, Christine Crokos
Executive producers: Bader Alghanim, Lee Daniels, Nick Garyfallos, Ali Jazayeri, Corey Large, Michael J. Mailis, Gary Ousdahl, Viviana Zarragoitia
Director of photography: Rik Zang
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Editors: John Scott Cook, Todd Sandler
Composer: Alec Puro
Costume designer: Ramee Randall
Casting: Rebecca Dealy, Jessica Kelly

Rated R, 86 min.