Sunday, August 2, 2015

Justin Gifford's "Street Poison"

Justin Gifford is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His teaching and research focus on American and African American literature. His book, the first literary and cultural history of black street fiction, Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, was a finalist for both the Edgar Allan Poe award for literary criticism and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for scholarship.

Here Gifford dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim:
When I began to contemplate the film version of Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, a number of clear choices emerged for lead actor as well as director of the film. Street Poison is the remarkable true story of Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, a notorious criminal who pimped on the streets of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and many other American cities for twenty-five years. He served five bits in prison during this period, including a two-year term at the infamous Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and a brief stint at the Chicago House of Corrections (he escaped from that prison in 1947). In 1962, Beck went straight and moved to California to be with his ailing mother. He published his autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life and a handful of other streetwise crime novels with a third-tier paperback publisher, and in the process, he transformed himself from pimp to author. By the time of his death on the day of the Rodney King riots in 1992, Beck had sold over six million books, and his work had inspired the creation of blaxploitation film, gangster rap, and street literature.

When I began this book ten years ago I had always envisioned Samuel Jackson as the perfect person to play Beck. His roles as Elijah Price in Unbreakable, Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane, and especially Jules Winnfeld in Pulp Fiction had established Jackson as the Hollywood badass. However, Beck was more than just an icy sneer and a collection of one-liners like, “Yes, they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” Beck was a combination of coiled sexuality, vulnerability, calculated violence, cutting-edge style, and verbal muscle. It is for this reason that the black James Bond, Idris Elba is the best choice to play Beck. His roles as John Luther in the brilliant detective drama Luther and the coldblooded Stringer Bell in the series The Wire show that Elba has both the heat and the range to play America’s most infamous renegade pimp.

My pick for director of Street Poison would have to be Quentin Tarantino. With a resume that includes Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Django Unchained, Tarantino has proven time and time again that he can tell stories of extreme violence and barely likeable anti-heroes with humor, grit, and an ear for clever dialogue. But although Tarantino is often criticized for his excessive use of the N-word in his scripts, even he might meet his match with Street Poison. Beck’s world is a world of pimps and prostitutes, prison cells, and underworld schemes; terms like the N-word, b!&$h, c*@t, and motherf^&+er appear regularly. This language (along with the specialized street slang used by the seasoned pimps) reflects the harsh ghetto environment from which Beck came, and the persistence today of racism, poverty, and police brutality in America helps explain why his works have had such a powerful impact on black comedy, gangster rap, and contemporary African American fiction. Whether or not any director could artfully represent the brutal and colorful realities of Beck’s life and times remains to be seen. In the meantime, readers who pick up Street Poison can experience the life of one of the most important African American writers in history and learn how he shaped contemporary culture from America’s shadows.
Learn more about Street Poison at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue