Oscar Winner Hits Angry Chord

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

When Christine Smith heard the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" announced as the Oscar winner for best original song on Sunday night's telecast, she almost fell off the sofa in her Arlington living room.

Deborah Veney Robinson of Silver Spring had pretty much the same reaction. So did Juaquin Jessup of Northwest Washington.

"It was just like during the time when all the blaxploitation films were coming out with African Americans being portrayed as pimps and hos and gangsters," said Jessup, 51.

"It was another example of how they pick the worst aspects of black life and reward that. There are more important things in our culture that need focus more than the hardships of a pimp," he said. "The only place many people see our culture is through movies and on television, and at the same time, 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."

Particularly offensive to Robinson, 36, was the performance by hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia, featuring men dressed as pimps and women in the hot pants and rabbit furs of streetwalkers. "I have no problem with movies and songs being gritty," she said, "but I have a problem with something that falls just short of a minstrel show."

In many parts of the Washington region yesterday, debate was raging about the motion picture academy's selection of the theme song from the pimp saga "Hustle & Flow," starring Terrence Howard, to win the Oscar.

The song -- written by Three 6 Mafia members Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard -- beat out songs from "Crash" and "Transamerica."

The subject was topic one on black radio. Radio host Tom Joyner, whose show is heard on WMMJ (102.3 FM), fielded calls from listeners who debated the merits of the song, in which a pimp named DJay laments his lack of success as he struggles to make it as a rapper.

On BET.com, a discussion was posted minutes after the Oscar was awarded. By yesterday, dozens of people had posted comments.

"This was an exceptional night at the Oscars for Three Six Mafia's Oscar win," wrote one. "I am soooo happy as well for them. Barriers have been broken, as well they should be. " Not everyone agreed. "While you are praising this 'great' accomplishment we are being laughed at, mocked with an I told you so grin on their faces. I'm not being negative, I'm being a realist," another wrote.

Retha Hill, vice president of content for BET.com -- whose audience is largely African American, college-educated and urban -- said her Web site began posting discussions soon after the song was nominated because her staff knew it would be controversial.

She said the Oscar selection and the song should be put in context. It was rapped in the film by the pimp as he struggled to make it as a hip-hop artist, she said. He was telling the story of how he hoped to rise above his circumstances and improve his lot -- a classic underdog story.

"In the context of the movie, the song makes perfect sense," Hill said. "But if you have not seen the movie or are just watching the performance on the Academy Awards as members of middle America and you hear someone talking about being a pimp, it is very difficult for you to understand."

Smith, 41, said the performance, along with an interview she had seen before the program, where members of the Three 6 Mafia members wore metallic "grills" on their teeth, were particularly disturbing. "It was like 10 steps back for us," she said. "White folks like that. It makes white Americans feel more comfortable with us when they don't have to think of us as their equals."

Several people interviewed said they found it ironic that the academy -- praised earlier in the evening by actor George Clooney for breaking down barriers for African Americans with an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her role in "Gone With the Wind" -- would glorify the travails of a man who earns his living exploiting women.

Erika Scott, 17, a Largo High School eleventh-grader, said she was a little shocked. "Growing up where I live, you see, all the time, people who are wanna-be pimps and aspire to be pimps," she said. "Knowing that there is a song that tells the world about what goes on with people like that was surprising, and I was surprised that it won. It made me wonder what the world has come to."

Robinson, who along with two friends runs a blog, "What Do You Know," with a regular feature cheering on African Americans who achieve in nontraditional areas, said she, too, was concerned about the stereotypes.

"It was a struggle for us last night because we wanted to root for the blacks, but the blacks were pimps and hos on the Oscars, so it was confounding," she said. "Image is everything, and we have to be so careful about the way we position ourselves in front of larger audiences."

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