Set in Oakland, California, The Mack was the highest-grossing blaxploitation film of its time, and the story behind the making of the film is perhaps more interesting than the actual movie itself. Rumour has it that screenwriter Robert J. Poole started developing the treatment and script on toilet paper while he was in prison and later passed it on to Max Julien and Richard Pryor, who wrote the final draft. The film is notorious for featuring the first-ever Players’ Ball, and along with Julien and Pryor, the film also featured real-life criminals, including the legendary Ward brothers. The production was plagued with problems: Richard Pryor’s notorious behavior and drug habit led him to be kicked off the set after assaulting the director; Frank Ward was murdered during filming, and The Black Panthers pirated the film stock in exchange for having a say in the making of, as well as an appearance in the movie.
Director Michael Campos, who had only previously made documentaries for ABC, set out to create an honest vision of life in the ghetto streets of Oakland. The movie deals with the life of John Mickens (AKA Goldie), and his one-man journey through the dark world of organized street crime. Once a small-time drug dealer, Goldie aspires to become a big-time pimp, only standing in his way are other players, corrupt white cops, and a local crime lord.
The Mack is pretty much a straightforward crime flick in which one man rises to the top and eventually falls, but what makes it unique is how the filmmaker lets the scenes and dialogue unfold naturally. The script was rewritten throughout the shoot, and the excessive use of street jive was all off the cuff, making the accuracy of the chichi pimp stereotypes dead on.
The Mack is a stylized and provocative interpretation of street hustling that features all the components that exploitation fans crave. It’s far from perfect – it’s incredibly preachy, occasionally clichéd and sometimes disjointed, but it’s as true to the game than any other pimp movie out there. However, the number one reason to see The Mack is for Max Julien’s terrific, low-key, dopey-eyed performance. His understanding of the pimp dialect and the conduct of 70’s ghetto slang is spot on. Goldie’s transformation from small-time crook to big-time pimp is thoroughly engrossing, and his character later became a key influence on popular culture’s perception of American pimps. Why he never went on to become a huge star baffles me.
Oliver Stone has been quoted in saying that The Mack was a direct influence on his script for Scarface (1983). The Mack is also a window on the world of today’s Hip Hop culture and has been sampled in hundreds of songs (rap, R&B, hip hop, etc), including Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Also, worth noting is the funk score by Willie Hutch.