The Mack: Platinum Series
When discussing the blaxploitation genre, the topic often turns to the stars actors such as Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, and Jim Brown, all playing larger-than-life characters on either one side of the law or the other. Blaxploitation movies often were action movies, and most offered a chance for these key players to perform in dynamic parts that were denied to black actors until then. Many of these pictures were just redressed versions of Hollywood's 1930s movies, filled with local characters and street smarts (never more clearly denoted than by 1973's Black Caesar, named after 1930's Little Caesar); they were engaging, but light. And though that may be the most notable characteristic of the genre, a handful of films tried to push the envelope and be more than just that movies like Cooley High, Cornbread, Earl and Me and 1973's The Mack. Though it features a pimp as its main character, The Mack has more in common with the '70s antiheroes of the era than stylized revenge yarns such as Coffy, and it offers a complicated depiction of a flawed but interesting man. As directed by Michael Campus, the film showcases a side of the streets that resonates, has great memorable dialogue and characters, and from Max Julien one of the great performances of the '70s, period. The Mack opens with Goldie (Julien) in a gunfight with the cops after he's been narc'd out. Losing the battle, he sends off his right-hand man Slim (Richard Pryor) and takes the fall. But after serving his time, Goldie gets back in with the Blind Man (Paul Harris), who gets him into pimping and teaches him the basic rule of being a Mack: Any man can control a woman's body, a great pimp controls their minds. And for a while Goldie is successful, able to move his mom to a nice apartment and give the neighborhood kids money to stay in school (always warning them "Don't look up to me.") But as the more recent song goes more money, more problems, and the neighborhood cops (led by Don Gordon) are itching to bust Goldie; the Mafia wants him to go back to dealing drugs; and his brother Olinga (Roger E. Mosley, best known as T.C. From Magnum P.I.) wants him to join his Black Power movement to remove the scum from the streets. Goldie also has to have a stable of ladies, which means turning out his lady friend Lulu (Carol Speed), and sometimes taking women away from other players. And though Goldie attends the player's picnic and wins the south-side's Mack of the Year contest, danger looms as he is overwhelmed by his own lifestyle.
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In the hands of another filmmaker perhaps someone working for AIP or one of the other low-budget distributors of the time The Mack have been just another flamboyant action picture. But director Michael Campus started his career as a documentarian, and he began the project (based on the ideas of Robert J. Poole, an ex-con with a story to tell) by going to the story's location: Oakland, Calif. There he came in contact with a real pimp named Frank Ward, who helped shape the main character, allowed location filming in Oakland, and introduced the filmmakers to many of the real events that were used in The Mack (including the player's picnic and the player's ball). During filming the Ward Brothers were major criminals in Oakland, and partnering with them gave the film an authenticity that grounds it. In fact, Campus was so involved with the Ward Brothers that he got them to appear in the picture, and when Frank died after production, Campus made sure the movie was dedicated to him. But getting close to the real pimps was one thing Campus also worked closely with star Max Julien, as the project was crafted out of both the street life in Oakland and partly out of Julien's relationship with his mother who died shortly before filming. As the antihero Goldie, Julien is playing a man fresh from prison trying to make a name for himself, and trying to do it right, but is being pulled back under by those around him. It's the kind of story arc that's been done so often that it takes a great turn to make it fresh, which may be why Julien's performance is a such a wonder. Though he appeared in few other movies, the way Julien commands the screen gives all of his scenes an incredible vitality and honesty, even when he's not in pimp mode. There's just something to the way he delivers dialogue it's hard to believe he's reading from a script, but maybe it's because Julien also helped shape the screenplay and gave the film the loose improvisational style that provides a raw energy to many of the scenes, especially with wild-card actor Richard Pryor. Such things make a film a classic.
New Line's The Mack: Platinum Series presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with audio in DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 Surround, and the original mono (DD 2.0). For a movie that was done on the cheap, it looks and sounds better than it has any right to. Supplements include an audio commentary with director Michael Campus, producer Harvey Bernard, and stars Max Julien, Annazette Chase, George Murdock, Dick Anthony Williams, and Don Gordon; it's an assembled track that forms a compelling portrait of how the film was made. It also has a good time recalling wild anecdotes about Richard Pryor's erratic and sometimes psychotic behavior. The commentary is perfectly complemented by the wonderful documentary "Mackin Ain't Easy" (38:28), which features all the commentators, a few film historians, and fans like Allen and Albert Hughes, who recount what made The Mack such a success and why it has endured. Most interesting is the picture's troubled production, as it was shot in Oakland. Although the filmmakers had the Ward Brothers' assistance, they didn't get the same respect from the Black Panthers leading to some disrupted shooting days. The production probably was as fascinating as the film itself. Keep-case.