Few blaxploitation pictures have cast a longer shadow over African-American pop culture than The Mack, a violent thriller about the sex trade that’s imbued with a bracing amount of documentary realism. Set in the ghettos of Oakland, California, the picture follows the adventures of Goldie (Max Julien), a small-time crook who returns home to Oakland after a stretch in prison. Surveying his options for making a buck, he decides to become a pimp (or “mack,” in the movie’s authentic parlance), and his success in the flesh-peddling line makes him a target for competitors, corrupt cops, and mobsters.
On paper, the picture sounds like a hundred other blaxploitation flicks, and, indeed, The Mack features the customary polyester clothing, R&B tunes, and street jargon. Beyond the rote action-movie plotting, however, is a sincere exploration of sociopolitical forces driving life in the roughest pockets of Oakland’s black community. The filmmakers enlisted several real pimps as technical advisors, which gives credibility to scenes of internecine power struggles.
Adding another interesting dimension are pointed interactions between Goldie and his brother, black-power activist Olinga (Roger E. Mosley). “Bein’ rich and black means something,” Goldie says to Olinga at one point. “Bein’ poor and black don’t mean nothing.” The idea of success as a revolutionary act is provocative, and Olinga counters this argument with hard-hitting remarks about how the cycle of blacks exploiting blacks benefits the white power structure.
This is heady stuff for a B-movie that also makes room for vicious scenes like the moment when Goldie locks a competitor in a car trunk along with a bagful of rats, but The Mack is consistently surprising. In addition to the race-relations material, the movie tries to explain the phenomenon of pimps controlling the minds of their “bitches” (get used to hearing that word, a lot, if you watch The Mack). In one vivid scene, Goldie gathers his streetwalkers in a planetarium and delivers a Jim Jones-style sermon about the rewards he’ll shower them with in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
The Mack isn’t made particularly well (most of the shots are grainy and underexposed), and Julien is a peculiar leading man, his onscreen persona so leisurely it’s hard to buy him as a lethal street warrior. Additionally, comedian Richard Pryor is underused in a supporting role as Goldie’s sidekick, though his sporadic torrents of vulgarity amp up the intensity level.
Nonetheless, the resonant elements of the picture stack up. Willie Hutch contributes atmospheric music (including the suave ballad “I Choose You”); veteran character actor Don Gordon weaves all sorts of eccentric details into his performance as a bad cop who torments Goldie; and Mosley, later of Magnum P.I. fame, is believably anguished. More importantly, for fans of the blaxploitation genre, The Mack is filled with choice dialogue, like Goldie’s classic challenge to an enemy: “We can handle this like you got some class, or we can get into some gangsta shit.”
The Mack: GROOVY