THE MACK (1973)
In 1973 THE MACK was released, the story of the rise and fall of a master pimp in the ghettoes of Oakland, California. It went on to become the biggest box-office blaxploitation hit of the era and is hugely influential to this day on black urban artists from Tupac Shakur to Dr Dre to Jay-Z and beyond. Many have sampled it’s highly quotable dialogue, fashion style and attitudes.
This type of tale always suffer from predictability especially when the rise in the trajectory of the lead character’s fortune is so fast, but THE MACK is well-played and underscored with sassy funk/soul music by Willie Hutch to match the bad-ass interplay.
A ‘Mack’ is a pimp gifted with a particularly seductive way with the ladies and here he’s named Goldie, played by the classically-trained Max Julien, an actor whose pedigree included a number of films crossing the period’s genres, the psychedelic PSYCH-OUT (reviewed earlier as No.28 in my blog) and writing the blaxploitation hit CLEOPATRA JONES, Goldie is an ex-con with an enigmatic mentor, the Blind Man (Paul Harris), who succinctly imbues him with the role and purpose of a primo pimp: “A pimp is only as good as his product – and his product is women…Anybody can control a woman’s body, but the key is to control their mind”.
Goldie has the ambition and the manner to do well and when pressed to help a hooker friend of his, Lulu (Carol Speed who played the title role in ABBY - also reviewed here as No. 51), he takes the plunge and in a montage sequence of raining money and parades of clothing he is soon transformed into the brim-hatted, caned and cloaked uber-pimp about town with a stable of fine ladies. Lulu is only the first of the ladies who sadly don’t seem to value themselves as anything other than a commodity. When Goldie reconnects with her and discusses his plans, she reduces herself to being an ‘n-word’ and without and other viable opportunities in her view. She also is delighted rather than offended when his aim is to “get the hottest bitches I can find”. These are black citizens who feel that in the urban game of life there are only certain hands black people are dealt – so they will exploit these cards to the limit.
Goldie has a devoutly religious mother whom he vows to support and buy a nice house for (without telling her how it will be funded), and a brother, a pre-AIRWOLF Roger E. Mosley as Olinga, a black power activist but with a warmth to his social conscience. He passionately disapproves of the destructive message that Goldie’s means to wealth sends out. Goldie attempts to do his bit by encouraging the local children to stay in school, but while he is showing off his pimp-mobile and spoiling them with money, it’s a mixed and hypocritical ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ lesson whose materialistics trappings from crime alone will be remembered.
Our super-pimp anti-hero is hounded throughout the film by two bent cops played by the familiar genre player Don Gordon and William Watson, as well as the excellently sleazy gravity of George Murdock as his former drug-dealing employer, the Fat Man.
To help Goldie, if that’s the right word character-wise, there is the welcome sight of an early film supporting part for the young writer/comedian/actor Richard Pryor as his best friend Slim - a volatile schizoid turn of restless energy and humour. He veers from child-like fear and instability to Bond-like hard-nosed resourcefulness using a gun-concealing accordion to blow away the Fat Man’s goons when the villain is about to bump Goldie off. Pryor was regarded as ‘a maniac’ by some when considered in casting, but he proved very helpful in script tweaking with his background as a writer – in between coke binges that made him very difficult and unreliable in filming his acting scenes.
Julien also switches ably between personas, from the boyish charm with his mother and enticing the new ladies in his harem, to the cold glint of steel on the streets when his growing business empire is challenged. When Lulu stumbles, tearfully distraught, to his car after a ‘John’ has roughed her up and robbed her, he is stone-cold sans sympathy: “ I don’t give a shit about what happened to you’ he spits, before ordering her mercilessly to go back out and make good on the night’s loss.
Goldie gets away with cruel treatment of his ‘bitches’ by spell-binding them with such appeals as “I’m gonna be everything to you… your father, your friend, your lover..” - as well as an impressively elaborate Planetarium show where he hires the venue and amidst the inter-galactic light show brain-washes the girls to chant in unison that they will “Confide and respect Goldie” amongst other commandments. When they repet their vow to honour “..a life-time contract”, it’s all becoming dangerously sub-Scientological in its cultish dominion over them.
Another lavish area of exploitation depicted In the film is the Mack of the Year dinner event, the Players’ Ball; like a Miss World for pimps, it’s an opportunity for the Macks to preen themselves in costume and celebrate their conspicuous ill-gotten riches in front of their peers. One of the runners-up in the awards is the charismatic Frank Ward, one of four real-life brothers in Oakland who helped director Michael Campus in achieving the veracity for the film (explored later on in this review).
It’s no surprise that THE MACK’s dialogue has been co-opted by so many rappers ever since. Robert J Poole’s script, and the improvisations of the cast during shooting spark off great attitudinal zingers. “I got too much much money for this shit!”. “I’m a rich n***er. I got lawyers!” Pryor calls one hood “You white n***er!” as he shoots him; Goldie threatens a henchman that if he ever threatens his supremacy as the new Mack again: “I’m gonna blow your heart outta your body, sucka!” before trapping him in his car trunk with a bag of white rats. The Fat Man urges him to reconsider working for him again with “You gonna go on playing Fagin?”. This is until Goldie and his cohorts administer rough justice by injecting him with battery acid, a grim excessive price for his own wealth funded by creating poison-dependent junkies.
The over-use of the ‘n-word’ in the movie though may perhaps have given Pryor some pause for re-thinking later in life; his trip to Africa sharing their proud citizens’ cultures caused him to renounce his own thoughtless use of the term ever again in his stage act.
Eventually, after the retaliatory murder of his mother (mirrored by Julien’s own mother’s death in 1972), Goldie is forced him into wiping out all his enemies on both sides of the cop/criminal fence and then opts for leaving the life. He bids his brother a sad farewell and departs on a Greyhound bus…
In the accompanying documentary on the DVD, ‘Mackin’ Ain’t Easy’, it becomes clear that THE MACK was a sincere partnership between the director Michael Campus, writer Poole and Max Julien to make a political and social statement with the film. Poole wrote the original treatment of the film in prison, based on what he learned about the psychology of pimps and their hookers and how they moved within the underworld economy of deprived areas. Campus’s background was as a documentarian who wanted to go to Oakland and explore the territory, and the aforementioned Frank Ward offered to open up the pimping world to him, a rich fountain of material. Campus was additionally leaned on by the Black Panthers and their leader Huey Newton while filming, who allegedly murdered Frank Ward during production due to what his lifestyle represented.
THE MACK began the blaxploitation sub-genre of ’pimp movies’. Goldie himself has become a much-loved character in the blaxploitation world and in wider black culture, an icon of style, ambition and excess, albeit rounded with an undercurrent of sadness and something of a ‘little boy lost’ air as he loses touch with his humanity in pursuit of the American Dream. The white fur coat became a copied symbol worn by many rap stars in conscious imitation of him. The film received heavy attacks by black and white critics alike for appearing to condone flash criminals as black role models, but as Julien pointed out, if he and Ron ‘SUPERFLY’ O’Neal had appeared in THE STING together, that might have been condemned as blaxploitation – and furthermore, there was no real backlash against THE GODFATHER for its supposed glorification of the white criminal underworld.
Watch THE MACK and enjoy a crucial and highly-enjoyable example of the urban crime blaxploitation genre. All those imitators can’t be wrong…