Envision for a moment a key scene in the cult hit film "The Mack." We are in a rather generic Oakland barbershop, circa 1973, surrounded by nattily dressed gentlemen of leisure, who are adorned in the haute couture of Elaganza, the Jean-Paul Gaultier of the ghetto, purchased from that citadel of sartorial excellence, Flagg Brothers, which offers styles even Barney's cannot compete with. The gentlemen in question are either sporting an Afro or getting a touch-up on their meticulous process as they exchange wisdom on the ever-evolving nature of their profession.
An aspiring MVP (most valuable pimp) by the name of Pretty Tony, a '70s version of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, explains to all in earshot the strategies that he uses to maintain morale among his employees.
"You know, man, all bitches are the same, just like my ho's. I keep 'em broke--wake up one morning wit some money in their pockets, they subject to go crazy. I keep 'em looking good, fly, and all that, but no dough. When I get a bitch, I got a bitch." To which his dutiful apprentice, Bob, appropriately co-signs, "Right on."
Much like any corporate CEOs would discuss their daily business endeavors, Pretty Tony and the other entrepreneurs are interested in maximizing their profits in a rather unstable market. Frank Ward, the pimping game's equivalent to infomercial king Tony Robbins, explains his seniority in the game: "I work mine from Frisco to Maine. It's all about the money game with me," leaving no doubt as to his embrace of the corporate bottom line. With this, we cut to Goldie, an aspiring pimp and the star of the film, who seems to be taking it all in as though attending a graduate seminar on "Pimping 101: The Ethics of the Game."
Later on, after Goldie has graduated to running his own stable, he shows that success has not spoiled him as he displays his benevolent nature to several disadvantaged youth. Dressed in a costume reminiscent of Robin Hood, he begins passing out money in a manner Mother Teresa would applaud. Clearly the Robin Hood-like attire is more than coincidental.
These memorable scenes define the quest for pimping's Holy Grail as pursued by Goldie in one of the most significant, though seldom-seen cinematic gems of the 1970s. "The Mack"--the title of which is a derivative of the French word for pimp, maquereau-- has not only lingered, it has built a huge following of devotees, especially among rappers like Too Short, who samples its dialogue, and cinephiles like Quentin Tarantino, who create homages on-screen, despite the fact that the video is officially out of print.
'The Mack," along with other blaxploitation films of the period--including "Willie Dynamite" and "The Candy Tangerine Man"--were cinematic excursions into the world of pimps, players and prostitutes.
Yet it is "The Mack," which will play Oct. 14 as part of the Nuart's blaxploitation festival, that has remained prominent over the years, gaining at least as much cult-like significance among black audiences as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" has had on mainstream culture.
Not that the film is any brilliant example of filmmaking. "The Mack" is so bad, on so many levels, that it turns out to be good in a perverse sort of way.
"The Mack" follows the rise and fall of an aspiring young pimp, Goldie, played by Max Julien, who is intent on being, in his own words, the "meanest mack that ever lived." As the film begins we witness Goldie, a petty criminal, on his way to an excruciating jail term that nearly breaks his spirit. Once paroled, he seeks the wisdom of the film's guru, the omnipotent Blind Man, who suggests that Goldie raise his criminal game to a higher level.
The Blind Man makes the link between the mack life and corporate America by telling Goldie that "pimping is big business," and demands that it be treated as such. Goldie promises to "rewrite the macking game book," and, much like Caine in "Kung Fu," follows the advice of his teacher. Eventually he reaches the apex of his professional life and is awarded the coveted Mack of the Year trophy at the Academy Awards for pimps, the Player's Ball.
Yet Goldie's climb to the upper echelon of the game has its downside. Goldie is constantly being pursued by adversaries: his pimping rival, the silver-tongued Pretty Tony; two racist white cops, and a menacing underworld boss, the Fat Man, whom Goldie, in one of the film's many nonsensical but humorous passages, describes as a "vicious-ass piece of jelly." Goldie is also in direct opposition to his black nationalist-minded brother, who has begun kidnaping pimps and drug dealers off the streets as a way of bettering the community.
With the assistance of the ultimate sidekick, amazingly portrayed by Richard Pryor, Goldie builds a "stable" of women whom he brainwashes with a sci-fi performance art piece at a local planetarium. As his clout builds, he goes on to attend the prestigious Player's Ball, not to mention the Player's Picnic, dethrones Pretty Tony by forcing him to repeatedly stick himself with a sword, and kills the racist cops, only to realize that the life he led was morally bankrupt.
Goldie leaves town the same way he came in, on the Greyhound. This is the film's overriding tragedy--there is nothing sadder than witnessing a man who is clearly a shadow of his former macking self ride out of town, on a bus.
Yet the importance of "The Mack" goes much further than its plot. Far from being one of many cliched blaxploitation movies that only serve the purpose of historical parody, "The Mack" is in fact a narrative that combines the nuances of African American folklore with the ambition of Horatio Alger.
Black folklore is replete with villainous heroes who, faced with the dictates of a racist society, subvert the ruling order by masterful deception. These characters, epitomized by the legendary Stagolee, the signifying monkey or Dolomite, inform the fascination with black underworld figures that dominate 1970s popular culture.
As a matter of fact, two of the canonical texts that adorned the coffee tables of many African American homes during this period are the sociological study on the life, "Gentlemen of Leisure" by Susan Hall and Bob Adelman, and Iceberg Slim's book "Pimp," both of which spell out in literary terms the pimping philosophy that we see Goldie personify on screen.
On the other hand, Goldie's ascent to power is quite consistent with the American Dream, as he speaks of being in constant search of that "rainbow that everybody talks about." He attempts to defy his lower-class roots by rising to unforeseen heights. Goldie is truly operating in the tradition of a poor boy who made good as he explains to his mother that "being rich and black means something; being poor and black don't mean s---."
Yet the real testament to the film's importance lies in the renaissance that has surfaced around the text with the proliferation of the film on video and the popularity of gangsta rap music. With blaxploitation films serving as, in many cases, the sole form of black representation for a younger generation of African American youth, many began to claim this film as the defining moment of their cultural identity.
Rappers like Too Short, Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Notorious B.I.G. and most recently Dru Down--with his smash "Mack of the Year"--have appropriated large segments of the film in one form or another as integral to their very existence. Much like a zealot quotes the Bible, rappers have taken on the "Mack" persona with religious reverence. (As Goldie himself says, "They gonna be talking 'bout me like they was talking about Jesus.")
Goldie's aura has also been appropriated by film fans. Tarantino has talked of the film's influence on him and used several scenes from the film in a pivotal scene in his script for "True Romance." Martin Lawrence has restaged the Player's Ball in an episode of his Fox comedy. Ice Cube's recent film "Friday" contains a pointed reference to watching "The Mack" on video.
It would be difficult to go on extolling the virtues of this film without acknowledging the many arguments that cry out against it. Both feminists and those interested in positive black image would be appalled by the film's politics, or lack thereof. When you consider the social dictates of Hollywood at that time it does not take long to realize that films like this were the rule, not the exception. Though this does not let the film completely off the hook, it does provide some sense of historical context and political understanding.
On the other hand, to critique this film on the basis of its racial and gender politics is to lose sight of the film's possibilities. The allure of "The Mack" is very much like the sentiment informing "Ed Wood." Both films demonstrate the potential for pure kitsch to be made into an art form as the demands of everyday life are momentarily displaced into a cinematic world where perverted pleasure supersedes all other considerations.
If nothing else, "The Mack" serves as a cultural icon, a relic of a bygone era, a reminder that even the most benign objects have some value and need revisiting from time to time so as to assess our current progress.
"THAT'S BLAXPLOITATION, BABY!" FESTIVAL,Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. Dates: Thursday through Oct. 19. "The Mack" screens Oct. 14. Prices: $7.50; $4 for senior citizens. Phone: (310) 478-6379.