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'The Mack' is back after 40 years

Director Michael Campus vividly recalls the reaction to his film "The Mack" from the opening-night audience 40 years ago in Oakland.

The film, starring Max Julien as the charismatic pimp Goldie and Richard Pryor as his friend Slim, had shot in the Bay Area city.

"The first scene came on with Richie and Max and — I am not exaggerating — the whole audience stood up and started screaming back at the screen," Campus said. "They never sat down. No one had shown that world — no one had portrayed the black underworld."

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Though "The Mack" played in little more than 20 theaters in African American communities, "we outgrossed 'The Godfather,' 'The Poseidon Adventure' [in those cities]," said Campus, who is white. "But we couldn't play the so-called white theaters. People were afraid to go to these theaters, and the distributors didn't think the white audience was there."

On Thursday, the film will get a 40th anniversary screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Campus, who also directed the 1974 African American drama "The Education of Sonny Carson,"  will be on hand to discuss it with Elvis Mitchell, curator of Film Independent at LACMA. Quentin Tarantino is supplying his personal 35mm print for the event.

"The Mack" chronicles the rise and fall of Goldie, who returns home to Oakland after getting out of jail to discover that his brother (Roger E. Mosley) has become a Black Panther-style black nationalist. Goldie, though,  is more interested in money and power. He becomes one of the city's top underworld pimps.

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Besides Pryor, "The Mack" also stars Oscar-nominee Juanita Moore ("Imitation of Life") as Goldie's saintly mother and Dick Anthony Williams as Goldie's nemesis, Pretty Tony.

Even though the film didn't get a wide distribution, its soundtrack did. Produced by Motown songwriter, producer and singer Willie Hutch, the album was enormously popular, with two of the songs from the film, "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" and "Slick," becoming hit singles on the soul chart.

Tupac, Jadakiss, Too Short and Jay-Z are among the hip-hop artists who have paid homage to "The Mack" and the film's score in their songs.

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The film has achieved cult status over the decades. Tarantino even wrote a scene in his screenplay for Tony Scott's 1993 thriller "True Romance" in which "The Mack" is playing on the television. And the term "mack" has become part of the pop-culture lexicon.

One of the film's highlights is the Players Ball sequence, which was shot during the annual gala honoring the most successful pimps from the Bay Area.

"There was a guy who had a swimming pool on top of his car," Campus recalled. "Players came from all over the country. They had their best threads, and they would outdo each other."

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Campus, Pryor and Julien, with whom Campus is still friends, quickly bonded when they began to rewrite the original script, which the director describes as terrible.

"We wrote the last five drafts together," he said. "Richie was brilliant, he was extraordinary. But he was at a very dark moment for him because of the drugs. But I will never regret having him" in the film.

Campus said the production was caught in the war in Oakland between the African American underworld, which was led by the Ward brothers, and the Black Panthers, led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

"They both wanted to be the ones who ran Oakland," said Campus.

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Frank Ward, the godfather of the underworld who became the film's protector, was murdered in his car while "The Mack" was in production.

Both Campus and Mitchell cringe when the term "blaxploitation" is used to describe "The Mack" because, Mitchell said, "it doesn't glorify" the underworld lifestyle.

"It's about a guy who sort of struggles with maturity and gets his comeuppance," Mitchell said. "He finds out he's not meant for this. I think it's a movie that is really about these questions of black masculinity: Do you take the easy way out and become this horrible kind of mutation of free enterprise, or do you try to sort of stand up and take the nationalist route and help your people?

"The Mack," Mitchell said, "is a pretty compelling piece of filmmaking. The interplay between Max Julien and Richard Pryor is something to watch. I think in emotional terms, there is a lot going on in the movie. It's an important movie."

susan.king@latimes.com

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'The Mack'

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $5-$10

Information: http://www.lacma/org.event/mack

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