I would love to read more about Max Julien. “The Mack” was a good picture, but the actor was dynamite. I’ve never seen anyone act so for real until I saw Max Julien. He is really together.
– June Sanders, New Haven, Conn.
– Letter to Jet Magazine, May, 1973
Max Julien star of the movie “The Mack,” replying to a white reporter who called the actor a “Black Marlon Brando”: “What the hell does that mean? I resent it. I’ve never heard any white writers call any white actor a ‘white Sidney Poitier’ or a ‘white James Earl Jones.’”
– Jet Magazine, June, 1973
Max Julien said he would have not made The Mack while his mother was alive. Without knowing the full details of her departure, that sounds like a sweet sentiment from a grieving son, one still honoring his part time preacher mother with the idea that she would not be there to watch the movie – a movie he is proud of, but a movie she may not have approved of. And Julien’s protection and thoughtfulness regarding his mother certainly is sweet and touching, but his loss takes on an extra dimension of sorrow when we learn how his mother died – she was murdered. Still reeling from a death so recent and unexpected, senseless and violent, the actor has said that in his performance he can see the sadness on his face, and that sadness resonates with viewers. He’s right. You can, and it does resonate – clearly and intensely. And not just in his poignant moments with his movie mother (played by the great Juanita Moore) but all over this fascinating, unforgettable film. There’s so much more going on in The Mack (and off-screen too), that the picture feels constantly alive, constantly fresh, rooted in a time and place but with terrific characters that are still relevant, still meaningful. In a making of documentary on the film’s DVD (“Mackin’ Ain’t Easy”), Julien said:
“April the 27th, 1972, my mother was murdered. Juanita Moore was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Imitation of Life’ and I worshiped her as a human being, but she really didn’t mother me. I needed her at that time. If you really look at it, there was a sadness about me throughout the whole film because that’s where I was as a human being and I couldn’t hide it. That is me, and I think that is really what people are relating to.”
Again, we do see the sadness in Julien’s complex, powerful performance, and even without knowing the backstory of his mother, we are significantly moved by his scenes with Moore. When Julien’s Goldie is released from prison, he goes to see his mother after that five-year stint and you can feel his anticipation simply walking into the room. He’s already set on making changes in his life, he’s clean from heroin now, and he wants to make more money, help his mother, and embark on a different profession (pimping – criminal, but it affords him more personal freedom). But he’s still his mother’s son, and this never plays clichéd or easy in The Mack – it feels real. In what appears at first, a simple scene, Goldie walks into his mother’s humble place quietly and nicely, and there he sees lovely Juanita Moore as mom preparing coffee. She turns around, thrilled to see her son, and we feel her mixture of relief and nervousness with her son now out free. Also wonderful is the extra tenderness Julien’s Goldie expresses towards her – the deep love for her in their hug, how he’s comforting any doubts or fears she may have (even if those fears will turn out to be true), how he remarks about how pretty she is, which feels unexpected and lovely – it plays so natural and lived in that we almost feel intrusive watching this scene. It’s effortlessly moving. A large part of this is how much depth the actors bring to their roles (they are both powerhouses), and Julien’s added personal emotional weight, but also that the director Michael Campus came with a background in documentary filmmaking. There are so many scenes in The Mack where it does not feel like characters are acting, they are so natural, and in some cases, people aren’t acting. And Campus appeared to let those scenes flow, the cameras rolling. He really captured something special.
That specialness is the story of Goldie (John “Goldie” Mickens), who is seen in the film’s opening with this friend and sidekick Slim (a tremendous Richard Pryor), shooting it out with the police. We’re already rooting for them. Goldie is caught, serves those five tough years, and once out, decides to embark on the career of pimping (he has a memorable, infinitely quoted discussion with a dashing, wiser gentleman of the profession). Charismatic Goldie can do this. He quickly forms his group of women, including Lulu (Carol Speed), whom he has a fond relationship with (until he builds up higher in his field and addresses her harshly – a sad scene for Lulu), intent to be a free agent while gaining power and prestige in Oakland. Given what’s available to him outside of the pen, and how racist and corrupt and downright sick the white cops are (who would prefer he be pushing drugs), the choice is understandable in terms of Goldie wanting to move beyond. He’s also got a way with women – using his charm in a manner that seems rather gentle here, and creepy-strange in one scene (a trippy moment in a planetarium). Of course, these jobs aren’t something that’s exactly good for these women in the end, and that’s not as much an element of the picture, but then, pimping isn’t entirely glamorized here, as glamorous as Goldie becomes. As Campus said: “My private joke about The Mack has always been that this is a film about sex that has no sex in it. It’s a film in which there literally are no sex scenes. This is a character study, and it’s a character study not only of the man but of a very violent and turbulent world.”
Like the glitz and flash turned gritty in another milestone 70s movie, Saturday Night Fever, The Mack is much more psychologically complex and unflinching than its fashion. Yes, Goldie’s becoming a flashy role model in the neighborhood where kids, in awe, gather around him and his beautiful white Cadillac, taking in his duds (he’s dressed in his fancy cape and hat – this movie is bursting with beautiful costumes), but even Goldie instructs them to never follow in his footsteps. Goldie hands the electrified kids money (the child actors/extras/regular kids are terrific here), but we also see an ethical force within Goldie, something his brother, Olinga (Roger E. Mosley), a Black Nationalist who is working to aid the community, is trying to further encourage. Olinga is working with the community, doing his best to keep citizens away from crime, drugs and violence, and he galvanizes people with his speeches. Both brothers are exceptional and both clearly love each other, but they discuss their differences:
Olinga: You really don’t understand, do you? Hey man, don’t you realize in order for us to make this thing work man we gotta get rid of the pimps and the pushers and the prostitutes and then start all over again clean.
Goldie: Hey look, nobody’s pushing me anywhere, okay. I mean not you, not the cops, nobody man. I mean, you want to get rid of the pushers, I’ll help you. But don’t send your people after me.
Olinga: Oh, come on, John. Can’t you see that we can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other. We gotta come down on both of them at the same time in order for this whole thing to work for the people.
Goldie: Hey look, nobody’s closing me outta my business.
Goldie keeps on going, dealing with those terrible, racist white detectives, Hank (Don Gordon) and Jed (William Watson), while his old employer pre-prison, heroin kingpin Fat Man (George Murdock) is attempting to lure him back. Goldie wants none of this, none of these awful cops, none of anything or anyone trying to control him. But eventually, he finds problems with competing pimps and a lot of shit goes down – a pimp is thrown in a trunk with rats, Fat Man is killed via intravenous battery acid, and explosives are the send-off to one of the most memorable and electric pimps, Pretty Tony (a tremendous, fantastic looking Dick Anthony Williams who utters some of the film’s greatest lines). And then something happens to Goldie’s mother, which is heartbreaking, and motivates a crucial moment between the brothers and the film’s ending. I can’t even imagine how Max Julien felt in scenes with his beloved mother in the hospital, but the tears are likely real — so much of this picture feels and is real.
With that realness, the crime drama of the picture is certainly intriguing, but what’s most vivid are the scenes between Goldie and family, Goldie with fellow pimps, Goldie facing off with cops, Goldie with women, Goldie with Slim, where Pryor and Julien at times improvised (as in an early scene in a bar) or when a brilliant, raw Pryor expresses rage and sadness with the cops. Much of this is shot in Campus’s documentary style (also, at times, I felt like I was watching a John Cassavetes film), from a script that was heavily revised by Julien and Pryor. According to Julien and Campus, this was key to making the film as authentic, witty and gritty as it was. As legend has it, the original script was written by Robert Poole on toilet paper from San Quentin (the specifics of this have been argued). That script called “Black is Beautiful,” got into the hands of producer Harvey Bernhard who pitched it to Campus and Campus agreed to make it only if he could shoot in Oakland and in the real locations, placing himself in the reality of the subject matter – that reality became the Ward Brothers (chiefly Frank Ward), Oakland’s head gangsters who secured safe pass and protection in the roughest neighborhood. They also helped mold the character of Goldie (Frank Ward, especially). The backstory of The Mack is as interesting and as drama-fueled as the movie – for in addition to the Wards, the Black Panthers (Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, specifically) were also involved in production, and also inspired details in the script (the speech of Goldie’s Black Nationalist brother, for instance). There is much more to this story and I suggest watching the fascinating 40-minute documentary on the picture’s DVD release and also, Scott Saul’s great, indispensable biography, “Becoming Richard Pryor” as well as reading the preeminent expert, David Walker, and his book, written with Andrew Rausch and Chris Watson, “Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Director Speak Out” (both books greatly helpful in my research). A feature length documentary is needed as The Mack comes with one of the most complex, eventful, historically, politically and culturally significant production histories of any film I’ve ever seen (including the murder of Frank Ward, whom the film is dedicated to). If you think the antics of Richard Pryor would supply enough drama on and off the set, you’re just scratching the surface. As stated, Julien and Pryor really shaped the movie (so much that Campus considered Julien an equal partner in the film’s creation), as Saul wrote in his Pryor biography:
“… Julien had traveled a complicated itinerary, embracing a series of roles: premed student at Howard; middling stand-up comic in New York City (where he met Richard Pryor, who informed him, ‘I don’t know what you do, but it ain’t comedy’); expatriate actor-filmmaker in Italy; and writer-producer of Cleopatra Jones, a hit black action film with a shapely karate-chopping narcotics agent at its center. … At the end of that journey of self-discovery, he was a committed radical, a close friend of Huey Newton, and an artist dedicated to upending the stereotypes that Hollywood preferred. ‘There could be [a black cinema],’ he argued in a 1971 interview, ‘if films start to deal with the psychological problems of the black man instead of repeating the one-dimensional militant or Uncle Tom.’ His rewrite of Poole’s one-dimensional Goldie would put his ambition to the test… Julien insisted that his friend Richard Pryor play Goldie’s partner, Slim, and Pryor in turn demanded that he be able to write all the dialogue for his character. Soon he was hosting all-night rewrite sessions. More than Julien and Campus (who had yet to go to Oakland), he knew the world of pimps from the inside. ‘The Mack’ gave him a chance to become on intimate terms, again, with the demons of his past.”
The “intimate terms” relating to Pryor, indeed, applied to almost all aspects of the picture. Watching Campus’s shots of the player’s picnic where pimps, friends and families play baseball like regular folk, with their kids running around, food being cooked, and general merriment expressed all around, is a wonderful slice of life, as are shots in a barbershop with Frank Ward. The famous Player’s Ball sequence, which inspired the real Player’s Ball (this movie offered and still offers a wealth of inspiration from rappers like Snoop Dogg to Dr. Dre to Jay-Z, to name a few, and to filmmakers like The Hughes Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, and beyond) is a great piece of filmmaking, again featuring the real-life Ward Brothers. According to Campus, Frank Ward wished to be the winner instead of the film’s character – Goldie. He instead, reluctantly agreed to be first runner up at the ball.