Oscar's Thumbs Up For Pimps

Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but now, apparently, it's also an honorable one - at least in the eyes of the pushers of pop culture, who have discovered its rebellious charm.

One of the films embraced this year by enlightened Oscar voters and film critics was "Hustle and Flow," an MTV Films production centering on an abusive Memphis pimp struggling to make it big as a rap artist. The guardians of the culture have touted this movie as an inspirational story of an American underdog struggling to live his dream, and ultimately and perhaps poetically, succeeding while imprisoned.

You can crumble and toss this script if reality is what you're after. Here's reality: rappers often don't "emerge" from thug life to star status. They attain stardom without really changing their thuggishness a bit. Pimping is a common theme of rappers, and the rapper Snoop Dogg even won an "adult film" award for his 2002 porn tape "Snoop Dogg's Hustlaz: Diary of a Pimp." But it shouldn't be said that such a man would be trying to live a "better" life, just a richer one. Going from pimp to pimp-rapper is a very lateral move on the moral scale.

When Oscar Night was over, the biggest impression the awards show left was its glowing tribute to one "Hustle and Flow" rap song. The Oscar winner for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture was "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," a filthy rap "song" written by the group Three 6 Mafia.

The "Mafia" crew performed an edited-for-television version of the song, with the lyric about the B-word talking the S-word replaced by the phrase "witches jumping ship." The relatively clean version was a bit of a surprise, since Oscar show producer Gil Cates originally said the B-words and "ho's" were acceptable since they're already heard on network TV.

The obscenity came later when the "Mafia" won an Oscar, and stormed the stage with a rowdy, once-bleeped acceptance speech, which also included a perfunctory shout-out to Jesus Christ, who I'm sure, was pleased as punch with the pimp song.

The song whines that it's hard for a pimp to get his rent money when his prostitutes aren't reliable money-makers. The female singer chiming in over the rapper in the film is a pregnant prostitute, too pregnant to turn tricks, and she tearfully states singing on her pimp's demo tape has made her sad life worthwhile.

This, said Hollywood to America on Oscar night, is the best in film music today. It's true that the Best Song category is hardly one of the top Oscars. But after years in which one wholesome Disney cartoon song after another took home the prize, it's jarring to sink this low. Some of the most respected songwriters in 20th century American music have won this Oscar, from Johnny Mercer ("Moon River") to Oscar Hammerstein ("It Might As Well Be Spring") to Burt Bacharach ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") and Sammy Cahn ("High Hopes"). We've come quite a distance from "High apple pie in the sky hopes."

Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest critics of the pimp song were blacks who have every reason to dislike the thug-life caricature that rappers too often provide for their race in the wider world. Even more offensive is the pandering by white elitists, celebrating what they see as an embrace of "black culture" through art. In the Washington Post, D.C. area residents were unhappy. One woman mourned that "this country is experiencing an influx of people coming over here from all over the world, and the only thing they see of black America through the media is ...pimps and gangsters and all of that. It's always some low-down brother or some welfare mother."

Several people interviewed by the Post found it ironic that the academy - praised earlier in the evening by actor George Clooney for breaking down barriers for blacks with an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her role in "Gone With the Wind" - would glorify the story of a man paying his bills by exploiting women in this most degrading way.

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy said the movie "artificially sweetened" the pimp life, as he recalled a recent real-life story about a convicted pimp who recruited girls as young as 14 with promises of friendship and security. Then he sent them off to have sex for cash with men in alleys, cheap motels, and the back seats of cars. Every dollar went to the pimp. He didn't get an award. He now faces decades in prison.

Milloy didn't mince words: "Through internationally marketed music videos, especially, African Americans have emerged as the only people on Earth who immortalize their mothers and sisters in the worst derogatory ways."

And you thought Hollywood was progressive.