I love queer movies that feature people of color and I love a good coming of age film. When watching the trailer for PIMP I was excited by what seemed to be both of those things, plus a love story. While that’s not entirely what you get with Lee Daniels’ new film, it’s still a journey worth going on. And it passes the Bechdel Test!
PIMP comes in hot with an opening scene that features our main character, Wednesday aka “Win,” played by Keke Palmer, saying “The first time I sold pussy… I was ten years old.” Really, that sets you up for exactly how this movie is going to go. This is not a feel-good film. That’s where you find the charm: It makes you root for a girl you’re not sure you should be rooting for.
We learn in the rest of the tight five-minute opening that Win is being raised by her addict mother and pimp father to follow in his footsteps. We also find out that she’s in love with the girl across the street named Niki (Haley Ramm, of Light As a Feather fame). From there we cut to adult Win, who’s broke after bailing her mom out and attempting to run her “girls” hard in order to live up to her father’s name and provide for her ever more demanding and homophobic mother. Friends, things do not go smoothly.
The main focus of this film is Win and Niki’s relationship. It starts when they’re both little girls and carries through to adulthood where they live together and have as close to domestic bliss as you can get living in the hood and working at a corner store and street corner, respectively. These two are Dom and Letty levels of Ride or Die. They share in the burden of the bills, street expectations, and 20-something jealousy — along with Win’s mom returning and expecting to be taken care of. But they always come back to each other. There’s joy there. In a story that’s violent, degrading and oh so rough around the edges, these two women have found safe harbor in each other.
The second central storyline is that of Win and the girls she employs. It’s a wild and messy little world they live in, filled with drugs, turning out teens and drugs. It’s constantly making demands of them, when all they seem to want to do is to take care of each other. At a certain point Niki makes the choice to start working the streets with the rest of the girls that Win runs. This is where the second relationship of the film really finds its teeth.
Win is harsh, petty and scared. Her emotions play out in how she treats the girls. This is no “by women for women” place of love. These women are a commodity and if they aren’t serving their purpose, they can go. Win rules cruelly and swiftly. The girls are not thrilled when the Top Bitch (Niki) rolls in and gets treated better. But, in a feminist twist of fate and danger, they come to count her among their own and try to protect her when things get bad.
The bad is the coming of a new girl, Destiny, who we all know as Toni Topaz from Riverdale. She meets Win at a time when money is picking up and Win is warring with the life she was raised to live verses the love she’s always wanted. To give any more details would spoil major plot points that are intended to push us to the violent and emotional conclusion. But I’ve been telling people that the best way to describe this film is as if the BET classic Player’s Club ran head first into Hustle and Flow, but cast a cadre of child stars turned ingenues.
It’s the casting that’s the clearest letdown. This is a film set in a low income, gang and pimp-filled neighborhood where even the working girls have to have an “edge” in order to survive. But Keke Palmer, bless her minuscule chest piece and faux locs mohawk, is soft. She has a swing and an attitude, but they never quite mesh in to a swagger. Her threats always seem to come from a 15-year-old enforcing someone else’s rules. I believe casting an unknown butch actor could have greatly benefited the depiction of Win being the type to run a house of girls. Additionally, the character of Haley plays the Ride or Die girl well enough, but her “hood girl” accent leaves much to be desired. I can’t help but wonder if it should have been intensified or scrapped all together.
I’ll not place the blame for the movie’s pitfalls on the cast entirely, because this story is rife with stereotypes and deeply overused tropes and coded racial messaging (Seriously, why does every queer Black girl have to have a non-Black girlfriend?). I actually had to Google the writer because we get huge doses of “Bury Your Gays,” “Hooker With a Heart of Gold,” “Sexual Assault As Means To Teach a Woman Her Place” and they pull a “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” by positioning our sole “bad” Black girl against the Ride or Die white girl love interest.
Well, it turns out this story about a Black, butch 20-something lesbian pimp was written by Scary Spice’s very white and very middle class ex-girlfriend, Christine Crokos. A woman who seems to have a history of short films that are far away from this subject matter. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to write about things you’re unfamiliar with, but the aforementioned pitfalls could have easily been avoided by a writer with a closer connection to the culture. I think the dialogue would have felt more authentic and crisp if there’d been some first-hand knowledge.
Despite my critiques, I still give this film a 8/10. It’s a story we don’t often see: queer, hood love among women. It’s clear every actor involved was deeply committed to not just their characters, but to the narrative. So pop on over to you favorite streaming service, or if you’re lucky your local indy theater, and take a wild ride.