By the time he passed away in 1992, Iceberg Slim—the nom de guerre of former drug addict, petty thief, and pimp Robert Beck—was famous for his pulply tales of ghetto living. In Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, director Jorge Hinojosa skillfully intertwines photographs, animated sequences, and interviews with celebrity fans and Slim’s family to construct a vivid portrait of a deeply troubled man who parlayed his criminal past into authorial success. A multitude of famous admirers including Chris Rock, Snoop Lion, and executive producer Ice-T appear throughout, heaping praise on Slim’s lasting effect over popular culture. Portrait of a Pimp certainly threatens to succumb to hero worship, but Hinojosa wisely subverts Slim’s mythos by pulling the curtain back on it in the doc’s second half by revealing the man beneath.
Slim’s immaculately coiffed hair and flashy clothing, coupled with his masterful grasp of the spoken word, captivated more than just his prostitutes, and late in life, he ostensibly wished to serve as a cautionary tale for America’s youth. But his fond memories of pimping, coupled with his magnetic personality, only served to perpetuate the allure of the pimp lifestyle within popular culture. In archival footage from PBS’s Black Journal, an aged but no less impeccably dressed Slim regales the camera with tales from his “ghastly life.” By his own account, he was an incredibly vicious man who exerted his control over a stable of women for a number of years, and there’s a certain inherent shock value in watching such a well-spoken older man speak about his cold, calculated brutality. Slim attempted to conceal his inner turmoil with a flamboyant façade—yet even after forgoing crime he could never truly leave his pimping ways behind him.
Near the film’s halfway point, the focus of Hinojosa’s lens shifts from the various celebrities and academics waxing poetic about Slim’s public player persona to the man’s family: his three children and his ex-wife Betty Mae Beck, a Caucasian women whose race, perhaps interestingly, the film chooses not to address. The various stories that his children confess about his unique style of parenting provide the film with a sense of levity; one of his daughters humorlessly recounts how Slim helped her get acquitted from a drug-trafficking charge. Levity aside, these intimate moments reveal a side of Slim that very few were privy to. All of America knew Iceberg Slim, but only his family knew Robert Beck. Betty Mae’s affectionate memories of Beck function as the film’s emotional core, and near the end of Portrait of a Pimp, Betty mournfully expresses, in her cigarette-hoarse voice, that she and Beck created the icon of Iceberg Slim together and that she dearly misses the man. With her glass eye and well worn skin captured in close-up, every quivering inch of her body conveys her love for him. In this moment, it’s easy to believe that maybe there were some redeeming qualities to the icy Slim.