Promoting I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988, Steve James, who appeared as “Kung Fu Joe” in the blaxploitation spoof, commented: “I always hated that label ‘blaxploitation.’ I wondered, why couldn’t there just be films with black stars? You know, you’d go around the corner from a theater showing one of them, and there’d be Dirty Harry. And nobody was calling it ‘whitesploitation.'” Right on, Steve! So in February, I’ll take a look at ten films featuring black stars from a certain era.
The Mack (1973)
Directed by Michael Campus
Written by Robert J. Poole and Max Julien (uncredited)
Produced by Harvey Bernhard
Helping graft the message and style of hip hop, there’s room to argue that The Mack is flat out the best “blaxploitation” movie ever made. Robert J. Poole was a convict who — according to legend — wrote a 40-page treatment for a movie on prison toilet paper. Titled Black Is Beautiful, Poole ultimately got his material to producer Harvey Bernhard. Fascinated with the concept of a street Svengali, Bernhard hired a young (white) filmmaker named Michael Campus, who’d shot a few documentaries for ABC, to direct. To play the title role, Max Julien was approached. Julien had written the screenplay for Cleopatra Jones and given the go-ahead to fill in Poole’s blueprint, got on board. Traveling to Oakland, Campus and Julien sought the help of the Ward brothers, the four men who ran the bay city’s underworld. Frank Ward agreed to take the filmmakers into his world, provided they took Ward into theirs.
In addition to being granted a cameo, Frank Ward inspired the title character as Campus and Julien fleshed out the script. Murdered during its production, Ward had the film dedicated to him. Financed by the soon to be defunct Cinerama Releasing Corp., The Mack was shot on a substantially low budget, yet endures because nearly every frame seems infused with a pure love for movies. Julien and co-star Richard Pryor bring star level magnetism to this low down dirty B-movie, while the necessities of shooting on the fly gives the film the power of a documentary on 1970s Oakland. The Mack is still a shoot ‘em up at heart and does get repetitive, but it’s also politically hip to the conflict between capitalism and the greater good of the community. If that’s too much to ponder, Willie Hutch wrote and performed nine killer tunes, including “I Choose You,” “Theme of The Mack” and “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out”.
John “Goldie” Mickens (Max Julien) and his partner Slim (Richard Pryor) shoot it out with gunmen who’ve ambushed them in a junkyard. Unable to escape, Goldie is taunted by two cops (Dan Gordon, William Watson) who debate whether to finish the hustler off or not. Enduring almost five years in prison, Goldie returns to the streets of Oakland. He visits his mentor, The Blind Man (Paul Harris) who ruminates about pimping and the opportunity there for the taking if his protégé adopts the right mental angle. Goldie runs into an old girlfriend named Lulu (Carol Speed), an “outlaw” turning tricks; she implores Goldie to manage her. The ex-con next reunites with his brother Olinga (Roger Mosley), a political organizer dedicated to black empowerment and to running the pimps and pushers out of the community.
Announcing to his brother that he’s down with self-empowerment — while keeping the true nature of his business secret from his Mother (Juanita Moore) — Goldie dedicates himself to becoming “the meanest mack who ever lived.” He reteams with Slim and with Lulu’s help, Goldie’s “professional ladies of leisure” are drilled in the finer points of shoplifting and grand larceny. To control their minds, Goldie rents a planetarium and lays down his rules under the cosmos. Rising to such success that he wins Mack of the Year honors at the annual Players Ball, Goldie spurns an offer from his former employer Fatman (George Murdock) to return to work for him. The vile cops who busted Goldie five years ago resurface next, intent on taking him down. To get out of the game with his life intact, Goldie turns to his brother for help.
What do you say?