There's a new kind of hero on the streets!
Pimping has taken a decidedly upscale turn in modern pop culture thanks to the influence of rap music and the acceptability of the new hip-hop society. Artists far too young to remember when huge fur hats and brightly colored leisure suits ruled the streets have co-opted the code and ethos of the hustler as a means of celebrating their present superstar status while honoring the past. Why work the militant protest of Public Enemy or swagger to the full out Crips and Bloods gangsta of NWA when you can fill your songs and videos with willing woman, mounds of money, outlandish jewels, and customized Cadillacs and emulate Superfly? Artists as diverse as Kid Rock and Snoop Dogg have borrowed the whole large livin' life of the player and commercialized it into a modern world wardrobe of "bling bling" and low riders. And more often than not, The Mack is cited as the inspiration for the entire design. One of the lost gems of the genre (at least in the mind of its fans and its makers), its story of a street thug who tries to balance his desire to escape the ghetto with the criminal life of hustling women and his moralistic ideals has indeed been influential. Its place in the pantheon of great blaxploitation movies, however, is a little more suspect.
Facts of the Case
Goldie goes to prison for five years after a junkyard shootout leaves him injured and marked by a pair of crooked cops. Upon his release, he returns to Oakland, California, and seeks guidance from the local hustlers about getting back into the game. Goldie wants out of his dead-end ghetto life, but he is not willing to work for it from the pro-community, black unity stance that his brother uses to fight the powers that be. After running into a local hooker named Lulu who wants him to handle her business, Goldie opts for the life of a pimp, and it's not long before he is the number one player in the area.
And this also makes him the number one target for the corrupt and criminal system surrounding the underground. Goldie used to work for Fat Man selling drugs, and seeing the success he is having, Fats wants him back in his fold. The cops who left Goldie for dead also show up, demanding payoffs and promises, lest this new Mack Daddy find his way back into the slammer. Add the growing animosity between the other Oakland pimps and our hero, and it's not long before death and destruction draw Goldie, his family, and his life into a final showdown between revenge and redemption.
Anyone expecting a butt-kicking, trash-talking, street-smart thug party ala Dolemite or Shaft should perhaps steer clear of The Mack. Most blaxploitation movies simply add sex, drugs, music, and mayhem to the African American community, and hope that the occasionally formulaic storylines are covered by crowd-pleasing kung fu fighting or elongated explorations under and on top of the sheets. The Mack has a more unusual approach and purpose in mind. Director Michael Campos, with a background as a documentary filmmaker for ABC, wanted to create a movie that featured a more realistic, everyday version of street life, something different than the wild devilish misadventures of Rudy Ray Moore's Petey Wheatstraw or the super serious sickness of Sweet Sweetback. His docudrama vs. exploitation approach is not always successful, but it does separate The Mack from the rest of the funky junkie bitches and platform shoe wearing, gun toting badass action flicks that passed for entertainment back then. Unfortunately, the story it tells is not always compelling or coherent, as it fails to provide us with reasons to respect Goldie and his gang of girl grifters beyond their flashy clothes and unexpected moralizing. But as a look at pimping and Oakland from the underworld out, it holds up surprisingly well.
The Mack is indeed a neo-realistic, honest story of one man's journey through the dark world of organized street crime. It is also incredibly preachy, disjointed, and esoterically insular. The idea of approaching pimping from a matter-of-fact framework is indeed unique. But it is also one of The Mack's many flaws. People seeing this film without a thorough knowledge and understanding of the jargon and manner of 1970s black society will probably find their head reeling from the excessive use of street jive and indecipherable pimp code names. Several scenes resemble the now famous confrontation between Barbara Billingsley and "the brothers" in Airplane! It may help to maximize authenticity, but it can be difficult to decipher just what everyone is talking about. But the biggest confusion may come in its overall theme. This film wants to champion personal empowerment, the notion of uplifting the minority class by instilling pride and power to the community. But then it totally subverts this message by showing that the only way to get back at The Man is via violence and death. This mixed signal derails The Mack, since it's not every movie that can have its dogma and desert it too.
The acting in The Mack is also a mixed bag. Campos goes for a naturalistic style, letting scenes and dialogue play out as if they are really happening without a formal dramatic rhythm or arc. Unfortunately, this relaxed atmosphere results in some incredibly amateurish moments, most of which come at the hands (and the motor mouth) of Richard Pryor. From the extras, we learn that the future superstar of blue humor and Hollywood blockbusters was high on cocaine the majority of the shoot, and it shows in his work here. The controlled comic genius of his standup concert films is lost in a series of glazed looks, faux voices, and mumbled moments. Instead of being real, Pryor is awkward and uncomfortable, his mannerisms reminiscent of Dolemite's famous Hamburger Pimp, except without the vocal clarity. Honestly, as a starting point to his career, you can see his superstar just starting to shine. Too bad its blazing buffoonery nearly blinds you. Not that Max Julien is any better as Goldie. He has taken the notion of a laid back ladies man to its ultimate literal extreme, turning our hero into a more sluggish than suave, plaintive than powerful, passive aggressive poof. Julien does have charisma, but he even out-laconics future protégé Snoop Dogg, a man not well known for his hyperactivity. Whether trying to talk tough with the other hustlers or laying the law down to his bitches, his words sound like empty, not evil threats.
New Line Cinema offers The Mack in a deluxe DVD package loaded with extras. Unfortunately, the time spent on multiple cast member commentary tracks and making of featurettes would have been better spent on the overall presentation. No matter how impressive the sound options are, even remixed for Dolby Digital Surround in 5.1, 2.0, DTS, or the original Mono, the film still has too much shrill high end and not enough bottom. The included documentary may make the package, but the movie's transfer is the primary reason people would be interested in this DVD, and it is only 50% successful. Many sequences look crystal clear, sharp and vibrant, with the immediate feel and colors of the times. But more often than not, the quality dissipates into a foggy compressed mess. Some of this may be blamed on the original elements. Grain and other age defects can be seen. But more times then not, it seems to be the result of too much information squeezed onto one DVD disc. Much of the movie takes place at night, and thanks to the transfer issues, you are stuck watching intense drama or action sequences in a digital snowstorm.
Yet, the extras mostly make up for the lack of a crystal clear picture. Many of the people responsible for the making of The Mack are still around, and most of them sit in for a full-length feature commentary track. Divided between the major players (director Campos, producer Harvey Berhard, stars Julien and cop Don Gordon) and ancillary participants in the film (actors George Murdock, Annazette Chase, and Dick Anthony Williams), there is a lot of good information in this film. Want to know what it was like to hang around a cracked up Richard Pryor? Everyone in the present cast and crew has a torrid tale. Ever wonder where the premise for the Player's Ball came from, as featured in the Hughes Brothers documentary American Pimp? The Mack has all the necessary facts. While this is a group effort for the most part, Julien tends to dominate the proceedings (the tracks were recorded individually and then spliced together to correspond with action or appearances on the screen). He comes off as friendly, if not a little self-righteous, about his role in the creation of and ultimate enduring success of The Mack. While not a stellar commentary track, it does add a great deal of depth and desirability to the DVD package.
But if there is one truly special aspect to New Line's presentation, it would be the documentary featurette Mackin Ain't Easy. Absolutely compelling, it avoids the mundane media puff piece promotion usually created to support a film, and instead offers an amazing (and troubling) look at the political and social climate that existed in Oakland at the time the film was made. We learn that the two most important men involved in The Mack, the real behind the scene players who worked to shape the production, were co-leader of the Black Panthers Huey Newton and local flesh peddler and criminal Frank D. Ward (not the producer and the director). Both wanted input and control, knowing that whoever had the last word would eventually control and dictate the tone and tenure of the production. After a failed extortion attempt by the Panthers, Ward won out, and his transformation from homeboy to Hollywood is the highlight. Over the few short weeks of shooting, he demanded a, and then worried about, his presence in the film (along with several of his real life pimp brothers). He argued over close-ups and nearly undermined the entire Player's Ball competition sequence. It's this kind of added contextual material that allows The Mack to rise above other film's from the genre and wear its slice of life sensibilities proudly and deservedly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ever heard of The Mack? Well, then you just don't know black culture, because within the community, it is, to coin a phrase, the shit. It is considered an awesome film that inspires the memorization of favored lines, samples by hip-hop artists and a radical, fanatical following of famous and everyday people who have just been dying to get this mini-masterwork on DVD. To them, its pimp hand is strong, and it takes no dissin' from other wannabe bitch players in the blaxploitation world. High on their list of favorites is Max Julien's smooth-as-silk turn as the big Mack daddy Goldie his bad self, and Richard Pryor in all his nervous, snow nosed glory. Still others champion the non-descript (except for that it rips off the best that Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield brought to the genre) music of Willie Hutch. For many, the fashions and the façade make the film a must see. But the general consensus about this movie's value is that Goldie wins. He gets to enjoy the pimp's life, make his money, run his women, clean up his leftover bad business with a few well plan murders, and then head out of town to bigger and better things. His brother (in the film) may be fighting to restore hope and order into the lives of average, inner city blacks, but Goldie shows the way. Simply put them no-account wenches out on the street and make them screw for your bus fare out of town. So how could anyone not find this film righteous?
Inevitably, The Mack is a disappointment. It really has none of the brash, over the top urban flavor of other, better films from its era, and its decision to trade comedy for reality, action for moral angst makes it too slow for fun lovers, too serious for thrill seekers. The Mack reminds us of how much has changed, outwardly, in modern African America. But there are other sections that offer a shocking reminder of how many of the same attitudes and problems still exist. When Roger Mosley makes his speech about black power, about changing poverty and the ghetto from the individual out, and preaches hope not dope, pride not crime, it could be 2003, not 1973. His words ring truer than the compromised chattering of most modern day spokespeople for the disenfranchised. Honestly, it is easy to see why the rebel entertainers of today are drawn to Goldie and his lifestyle. He pays no ultimate price (aside from losing friends, lovers, and relatives) and he gets to beat the Man, the System, and even his fellow brothers at their own game. He subverts justice as he quashes his moral dissolution in Robin Hood-like good deeds and high-minded ideals. If anything, Goldie was ahead of his time. He is the millennium Mack, the prototype for this new nation of non-responsible entertainment hucksters, able to wash their lack of principles in waves of cash money virtue and rivers of champagne pride. It's just too bad that so many of them fail to see beyond the bravado and into the amoral essence below.
The Mack is placed on five years probation for being an unusual, if average entry into the blaxploitation genre. New Line Cinema is acquitted and free to make more feature packed DVDs, with the caveat that they pay closer attention to their sound and image presentation in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Audio Commentary Featuring Stars and Makers of The Mack
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