About halfway through American Pimp, a briskly entertaining yet disquieting documentary by Allen and Albert Hughes, a few of the 16 pimps surveyed from cities across the country are asked why prostitutes even require their services. One proudly claims he provides "instruction, guidance, and protection," while another makes the more specious argument that it's simply a natural pairing, like a priest needs a nun or a doctor needs a nurse. Of course, the truthful answer to the question is that hookers don't need them at all: Pimps are ruthless, predatory, exploitative men who rule by intimidation and leech off the labor of desperate, damaged women. Yet despite their indefensible occupation, the smooth-talking and charismatic lotharios go to great lengths to justify their existence, and the Hughes Brothers are smart enough to stand back while they dig their own hole. With such a hot-button subject, the Hugheses take a major risk by not making their own feelings clear, a criticism some leveled against their 1993 debut feature, Menace II Society, one of the best and least didactic of the 'hood movies. Their implicit trust in the audience is a large part of what makes American Pimp so potently funny and disturbing, because it's left unguarded against the insidious charms of seasoned street hustlers. The players interviewed are diverse in age, experience, and locale, but after a while, they converge into the same honeyed voice, no different from the bejeweled heroes of such blaxploitation films as The Mack and Willie Dynamite. With names like Fillmore Slim, Gorgeous Dre, and Rosebudd ("Double D for a double dose of pimpin'"), and outfitted with conspicuously garish clothes and accessories, they're amusingly similar to the cartoonish pimp of popular imagination. But a few harrowing moments in which they drop their act for the camera and put prostitutes in line speak to a more chilling reality. American Pimp isn't perfect: It doesn't spend enough time with the women, and it leaves underdeveloped an intriguing point about race in the skin trade: that black men working the streets are pimps, while white men running brothels are businessmen. But as a unique foray into a world usually reserved for fiction films, American Pimp is uncompromised and eye-opening.