ReDiggin' the Scene

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Mack"--the 1973 blaxploitation classic--may be back. If producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson have their way, Goldie the pimp will go before the cameras in '90s garb--perhaps by the end of the year.

Eyeing a hip-hop culture heavily influenced by that imagery and tremendous African American want-to-see, the duo--like a host of others in Hollywood's creative community--is drawing inspiration from the genre. Convinced they can surmount the hurdle of political incorrectness, they're hoping for a go-ahead from 20th Century Fox, the studio they call home.

" 'The Mack' is the greatest film of the exploitation era, a morality play about an anti-hero with a code who runs a game to survive," said McHenry, who, with his partner, is responsible for movies such as "New Jack City," "Jason's Lyric," and the second and third installments of the "House Party" series.

"And the conditions that produced Goldie are still relevant. We're going after a bigger, more epic film--not a remake. We see it as 'Pulp Fiction' meets 'Scarface.' "

"The Mack" is a Horatio Alger tale about a charismatic petty criminal (Max Julien) who turns to pimping after his parole. With help from his sidekick (Richard Pryor), he rises to the top of the heap--fending off opposition from the Fat Man, Pretty Tony and two racist cops, only to find himself morally bankrupt in the end. Though many of the actors were plucked off the street, the appeal of the movie lay as much in its campy humor as in its indictment of the urban reality.

Their project, Jackson predicts, would resonate with the "disenfranchised"--which the producer asserts is a larger chunk of the populace than most people suspect. "We're going to try to expose society's hypocrisy, get the roaches out from under the carpet," he said. "Gangster films take an uncompromising view of what has come to be known as the 'American way.' "

Like music and fashion of the 1970s, so-called blaxploitation films--gritty, sex- and violence-laden, low-budget pictures aimed at African American audiences--and other movies and television shows of the era are inspiring a revival. Director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") is peddling an updated version of "Shaft" (1971), a project that Paul Hall and Scott Rudin are set to produce; Danny DeVito's Jersey Films is developing the 1974 detective TV series "Get Christie Love" as a feature film for Whitney Houston and Universal Pictures; and even cult figure Rudy Ray Moore, the stand-up comedian who played Dolemite in the 1975 karate gangster spoof, is trying to get a remake, "Dolemite 2000," off the ground.

Quentin Tarantino, a longtime blaxploitation fan, has changed the race of the flight attendant in "Jackie Brown"--a movie based on Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch"--so he could cast Pam Grier, star of such '70s films as "Coffy," in the lead. (Tarantino also has decided to release Jerry Martinez's book "What It Is, What It Was," a volume on the imagery and impact of blaxploitation films, as the first release from his Rolling Thunder book division.)

Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinema and Television, links the revival to the pervasiveness of rap. "Many of the images and icons of blaxploitation films, available on video, provided the basis for characters the rappers created--Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Doggy Dogg, etc.," he said. "And the 1970s were so outlandish in presentation and attitude that pictures such as 'Casino,' 'Dead Presidents' and 'Nixon' have had fun trying to reconfigure the period. There was a naivete and a boldness contemporary society doesn't allow."

Rappers sample or remix previously recorded material, industry observers note--a trend catching on in society at large. "Street culture imitates movies and, after a while, movies imitate street culture," said Michael Shamberg, who is partnered in Jersey Films with Stacey Sher and DeVito. "Kids today pick and choose, looking for something fresh. That's where 'Christie Love' comes in. No one has tapped that strain yet--and we're hoping it will catch on."

"The Mack," with its built-in following, would seem to have more than an even chance to catch on. When McHenry and Jackson were at Savoy Pictures two years ago, they approached "Mack" producer Harvey Bernhard with the intent of acquiring the rights. When the company was dismantled in 1996, they signed an exclusive deal with Fox. The studio became immediately interested in a new version of the film, which was originally shot for $250,000 in Oakland.

In the next week, screenwriter Ben Ramsey will submit his first draft. If the studio reacts well, casting and budgeting of the mid-range picture will get underway. The filmmakers say they've been besieged by requests to audition for Goldie. They refuse to discuss the leading contenders, but acknowledge that rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg has been mentioned.

"We see this movie, like [Baz Luhrman's] 'Romeo and Juliet,' as a niche movie with the potential of breaking out," said Tom Rothman, president of 20th Century Fox Film Production. "We're always looking for variety and originality--and the enduring title makes for great awareness."

The first time around, however, whites stayed away. "It was a hard, brutal picture--and the white press didn't understand it," recalled Bernhard, who is executive producing the new version with casting director Reuben Cannon and Michael Campus--director of the original. "Whites were portrayed as the heavies. . . . We were telling the truth. There's not a black person in the urban parts of this country that can't quote 'The Mack' verbatim. Sixty-thousand video units were sold in 1997 alone--more than two decades after its release."

That figure is all the more remarkable given the absence of a recent theatrical release or videos being readily available for many years. In fact, it was only in 1991 that New Line Home Video officially released the film on video; before that the "Mack" phenomenon largely grew out of grainy, bootlegged tapes.

Not everyone is delighted at a comeback for Goldie, however. "This is an incendiary movie to redo," said a white Hollywood producer. " 'The Mack' is a throwback to an image blacks have been trying to fight on-screen. Every black actor of note talks about turning down maid and slave roles, so why make a movie about the industrial-strength pimp of all time? Would we bring back Butterfly McQueen roles--even if Janet Jackson was willing to play them?"

Rothman has no qualms about the project. "Plenty of movies are made about outlaws," he says. "In 'Pulp Fiction,' every character was on the wrong side of the law. It all has to do with context, story line, the personal values presented. Would we refuse to make 'Bonnie and Clyde' in this day and age?"

Singleton says he's glad "The Mack" is resurfacing. But like Shamberg, he wants to separate his project from the blaxploitation pack.

' "Shaft' doesn't have the caricatures, pimps, prostitutes those movies have," he said. "It wasn't directed by whites [Campus is white], but by the renowned black photographer-author-composer Gordon Parks. Its music and attitude are an enduring part of America's pop culture. We're bringing the movie back because there's a real need for heroes. Shaft can be the new James Bond, establishing a new level of what's cool."

Political correctness, McHenry says, is more of an issue today--one the "Mack" filmmakers plan to tackle head on. "We're presenting a character study of a guy from a dysfunctional family with a brother who takes a very different road," he said. "And his game, this time, goes far beyond pimping. He gets into counterfeit credit cards, Vegas . . . building a whole empire before he falls."

Campus was offered the chance to direct "The Mack" again but ultimately decided the film said what he wanted it to say.

"We weren't suggesting that pimping is the answer--just explaining why it's there," said Campus, who has directed five films, including "The Education of Sonny Carson," since then. "I just hope that this one doesn't become so big and glitzy that the energy and grittiness are lost. The big question is whether this version will be haunted by the same fear factor as the first. Will whites be willing to tread on alien turf? Maybe the soundtrack will get it to cross over. . . . I feel like I'm in the birthing room again."

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