Review of The Mack

The Mack
The Mack is a 1973 blaxploitation film starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor.  Although the movie was produced during the era of such blaxploitation movies as Dolemite, its producers do not label it a true blaxploitation picture. They believe it to be a social commentary, according to Mackin’ Ain’t Easy, a documentary about the making of the film, which can be found on the DVD edition. The movie is set in Oakland, California and was the biggest-grossing blaxploitation film of its time. Its soundtrack was recorded by Motown artist Willie Hutch.
“The Mack” is a very noisy, film about the rise and the peaceful retirement of a pimp who, according to the film’s program notes, is known in West Coast street language as a mack, an apparent corruption of “mec” of French argot.
When Goldie (Max Julien) gets out of jail, he finds that his brother has become a militant black nationalist, that his middle-class mother still wants him to go to church on Sundays, that two crooked, psychotic white cops hope to put him back in jail, and that the only thing he can do is pimp. “I’m going to be the meanest mack there ever was!” Goldie vows. He then adds: “They’re going to talk about me the way they used to talk about Jesus.”
That doesn’t make much sense, but nothing does in this essentially sentimental melodrama. The screenplay by Robert J. Poole uses lines that seem to have been saved from a sophomore’s notebook. “Truth,” says a white cop, “is pimples, garlic and armpits.” Says Goldie to a hooker whom he’d known when both were children: “I thought you’d become a nurse or a lawyer or something heavy.” Or, and this is my favorite wisdom of the week: “A pimp is only as good as his product—and his product is women!”
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.

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