Blame it all on Ice-T. Twenty-eight years ago, at the very start of a professional relationship that has evolved into a beautiful friendship, the prolific rapper/actor/multimedia-multihyphenate made it clear to manager Jorge Hinojosa: If they were going to understand each other, Hinojosa would have to understand Iceberg Slim.
“I started to read Iceberg Slim in high school,” Ice-T said. “His whole persona made up my character – the way I had my hair permed, and my mannerisms. Everybody has an influential person in their life, and I just picked up this cat because he was the coolest in the world.”
So Hinojosa borrowed Ice-T’s well-worn copy of Pimp: The Story of My Life, Iceberg Slim’s breakthrough autobiography. And, as he recalls, his mind was blown.
“I started to read Iceberg Slim in high school,” Ice-T said. “Everybody has an influential person in their life, and I just picked up this cat because he was the coolest in the world.”
“Iceberg's writing was brutal and gritty — and at the same time beautifully poetic and lyrical,” Hinojosa says. “Iceberg bared his soul and exposed himself to be a cross between Mark Twain and Hannibal Lecter —brilliant, captivating and very dangerous.
“The world he exposed me to in his book Pimp was cruel, tragic, oppressive, fascinating. And it was also the reality of the inner cities across America.”
Hinojosa achieves the same level of unvarnished honesty in Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, his mutilayered documentary about a multifaceted icon. It’s a labor-of-love effort that nonetheless offers a warts-and-all evaluation of its subject.
And, not incidentally, it’s a portrait that earned a thumb’s up from one of Slim’s biggest fans: Ice-T (who just happens to be one of the film’s executive producers).
For the benefit of those, like Hinojosa, who tuned in late: Iceberg Slim (real name: Robert Beck) spent his early days as a petty criminal, drug addict and badass pimp, drifting in and out of prison until hitting rock bottom in the early '60s during a lengthy stint in solitary confinement.
He managed to turn his life around only when he began to draw upon his brutal and brutalizing experiences to author works —including Pimp, Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow and The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim — that have been favorably compared with the literature of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and other chroniclers of the African-American experience.
Slim’s checkered past “gnawed at him,” Hinojosa says. At the same time, however, “it was the fuel and inspiration for his books. It allowed him to expunge or confess who he was and what he saw and felt. His natural talent, which had no formal training, was the key to his transformation. It was also the inspiration for Ice-T and the millions of readers that have been rapt by his books. All of this played into what [my] movie explores and expresses.”
“After finishing the last book, I realized that Iceberg’s writing had taken its toll on my outlook on life. I had become more suspicious and looked for the ‘game’ in everything," Hinojosa says.
Throughout his Portrait, Hinojosa notes how Iceberg Slim was shaped by corrupting influences, including a treacherous mom, who coldly betrayed the one man Slim ever viewed as a father figure. But very much like Slim himself did in his writing, the movie 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, who died in 1992, always claimed he wrote his autobiography as a cautionary fable about what he described as “my ghastly life.”
What lessons did Hinojosa take from reading Pimp and Slim’s other books?
“After finishing the last book,” Hinojosa says, “I realized that Iceberg’s writing had taken its toll on my outlook on life. I had become more suspicious and looked for the ‘game’ in everything.
“Ice, being older than me, had not so unwittingly educated me on what I needed to know if I was going to be his manager. And for the last 28 years, I have put [that knowledge] to good use. I have been the guy that has been there since the beginning making sure his rap career was handled correctly, transitioning with him through all of his many creative endeavors -- rock musician, author, actor, public speaker and director.
“This has been a role I have thoroughly enjoyed, and has defined me more than anything else.”