Seems like just yesterday that Keke Palmer was making her big screen lead debut in “Akeelah and the Bee,” playing a tween who masters spelling bees with the help of mentor Laurence Fishburne.
Here she is, a dozen years later with the title role again — “Pimp.”
They grow up so fast.
“First time I sold p—y I was ten years old.”
Violent, raunchy and raw, sexual and street-wise, “Pimp” is straight-up exploitation, a serious departure for the starlet, would-be pop star and 25 year old veteran of the screen trade.
And for gritty, lowdown exploitation, it’s not bad. Writer-director Christine Crokos has built a solid star vehicle for Palmer on the bones of lurid ’70s blaxploitation cinema.
“Hard” is the byword for this world, and the scene is set with our anti-heroine’s voice over narration. Wednesday, “Wen” for short, grew up in the life — Daddy (DMX) was a pimp who taught her the trade, Mom (Aunjanue Ellis of “Designated Survivor”) was a hooker-junky who gave up street walking, but not junk.
Daddy’s premature death put Wen in charge of her own operation, and she’s had to get tough, fast. She has the tattoos, the facial scars and lean, hard lines of an athlete, and the scariest dreadlocks ever.
“I was just one’a them boys, learning this game.”
And she has, taking Daddy’s big piece of advice seriously.
“Never let a b—h get close to your heart.”
Wen’s love since childhood has been Nikki (Haley Ramm). She was a neighbor, a junkie’s daughter, too. And she’s grown up to be a thin bombshell Wen keeps and has promised to take care of. But no, she’s not one of her “girls.”
That changes when Momma’s latest bail money leaves them broke. Nikki makes the pitch herself — “It’s just business.”
Wen doesn’t like it, but she listens. After all, what else did Daddy say? “Once you’re in this game, you’re in it for life. Only thing you can trust is money.”
To Daddy, now to Wen, “Money meant love.”
But putting Nikki on the street — with Wen’s rudimentary instructions — set the stage for the conflict to come. As any pimp knows there can only be one “top” girl. And Wen sees even more dollar signs in the Beyoncé-alluring pole-dancer/hooker Destiny (Vanessa Morgan), a bombshell already in demand, already with a pimp but with eyes for Wen that go beyond the bottom line.
“Dreams are free, but the hustle’s sold separately.”
For all the tough, fatalistic dialogue and nuts and bolts of streetwalking, all the meaty settings (brothels, hotels, an off-the-books firing range), “Pimp” could easily have toppled into laughable, an arch swing-and-a-miss at sending up a genre.
But Palmer makes herself over for this part and makes it work. When we see Wen practicing being hard to the mirror, doing her version of “You talkin’ to ME?”, we can hear the brass coming out in Palmer’s voice. We believe her as Wen, getting in over her head, proclaiming her love for Nikki and hopes for getting them out of there, and naively getting played.
She is almost surely overmatched when the villain who controls Destiny’s destiny shows up.
Edi Gathegi of “Gone Girl” and “X-Men: First Class” makes a great villain, an amoral, psychotic sociopath. “Kenny” has done the math that shows what a life on the street is worth, knows what he can get away with and is blindly, murderously ruthless.
Consequences? Once he has violence on his agenda, he never thinks about those.
Crokos isn’t taking us anyplace the movies haven’t been before, but with “Pimp” she’s produced a mean, lean and unsentimental portrait of this life and those who live it and die it.
And Palmer? This is going to change how people look at her and who hires her, if there’s any justice to Hollywood.
MPAA Rating: unrated, strong sexual and violent subject matter, profanity
Credits: Written and directed by Christine Crokos . A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:26