When I ask people the pressing question, “Which Children’s Television Workshop actor gives the best performance as a pimp in a motion picture?” nine times out of ten, the answer I get is, “Morgan ‘Easy Reader’ Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance as Fast Black in 1987′s Street Smart, of course” (one time out of ten, I have to explain that Rita Moreno did not play a pimp in West Side Story).
In either case, the answer is wrong. The correct answer is Roscoe Orman (a.k.a. Gordon from Sesame Street) as the titular pimp in the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite. In fact, one of the things I enjoy the most about this movie is pretending that Willie Dynamite really is Gordon from Sesame Street. That becomes especially entertaining when Gordon from Sesame Street has to slap a ho.
As the movie’s theme song explains, Willie Dynamite has “seven women in the palm of his hand.” These seven women, in fact, constitute the top stable of hookers in New York City, servicing convention-goers at the best hotels in the city. The opening scene shows the ladies at work during a Shriners convention. While they work, a voiceover comes from a convention speaker talking about small business success, making an ironic comment on Willie D’s business.
Willie treats his hookers like any great American business. As he explains to Passion, a new girl, “This is a production line, and just like GM and Ford, Willie’s coming through!” But, unlike GM, Willie is not eligible for a government bailout as he is not too big to fail. Willie also advises Passion to make a tourist “feel like he’s bonin’ the Statue of Liberty,” which makes for an interesting mental image.
After dealing with his ladies, Willie attends a special meeting of NYC pimps. One pimp, Bell, proposes a plan to consolidate territories. All the other pimps agree, including Baylor (an uncredited Robert DoQui), Sugar (who responds with “Sweet”), and Milky Way (who, if you couldn’t guess, is the one white pimp in the club–thanks, affirmative action!). Willie, however, strongly objects, as he doesn’t want other pimps horning in on his particular market and cutting into his profits. Bell is not happy with Willie’s objection.
When Passion gets arrested, she is approached by Cora Williams (Diana Sands), a social worker dedicated to putting hookers on the straight and narrow. Cora almost has Passion turned at the arraignment hearing, but Willie shows up at the last minute with bail money and a lawyer to get her out.
Cora then makes it her goal to put Willie out of business. She even goes to Willie’s stable and tries talking the girls into going independent. She claims to be “a Ralph Nader for hookers,” but she’s more like the Cesar Chavez of hookers, convincing the ladies to organize on their own.
The movie traces Willie’s fall as various forces work against him: Cora, Bell’s reorganization plans, and a couple of police detectives: Celli (the great George Murdock) and his Muslim partner, Pointer (the also great Albert Hall). Willie cannot keep all of these forces at bay for long. The police are constantly hassling him and his ladies, while Bell threatens him. He manages to temporarily take care of Bell by leaving him naked in the Bronx after Bell attempts to kill him.
Things really start to go to hell when Willie’s girls find another crew stepping in on an optometrists’ convention. A fight breaks out, and one of Willie’s top girls gets her throat slit. This is not that big a deal, though, because someone always gets cut at an optometrists’ convention. Later, Passion ends up going to jail, where she gets slashed across the face.
The real star of this film is Willie’s wardrobe, which looks like Ike Turner and George Clinton’s wardrobes got together and had a baby. He wears a lot of tight, brightly colored polyester jumpsuits and fur coats and hats. These clothes were not made for fast getaways, or for stowing weapons or contraband. In order to carry a gun, he has to strap it between his legs, and he can only reach it by unzipping his fly. When Willie is chased by Detective Pointer, they run through a tenement and a construction site, yet Willie’s white jumpsuit never gets a smudge on it, which is pretty impressive.
The movie takes a bizarre turn at the end. Willie’s world falls apart: he gets the shit kicked out of him by Bell and his men, then he gets arrested. During his arraignment hearing, his mother (who has thought all along that Willie was a musician’s agent) has a heart attack and later dies at the hospital. Cora, for some reason, feels particularly responsible and develops sympathy for Willie. He then gives all of his money to Cora to pay for Passion’s plastic surgery. As he leaves his apartment, he finds his purple pimp mobile with leopard interior getting towed away, but he has decided to leave the pimp lifestyle behind. He struts away smiling, and the movie ends with a freeze frame. It’s at this point I like to imagine that he decides to change his name to Gordon and move to Sesame Street.