Pimping ain't easy, the saying goes, and no film better illustrates the second oldest profession's glamour and downside than The Mack, a 1973 blaxploitation classic that resonated throughout popular culture like few films before or since. Rap artists from Dr. Dre to Nice & Smooth co-opted its endlessly quotable dialogue, Oakland's Too $hort built his career around it, and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the Hughes Brothers paid overt homage to its quintessential tale of pimping in the big city. The Mack certainly wasn't the first film to invite audiences to identify with a gleefully transgressive antihero, but its combustible take on sex, class, capitalism, and race made it an important touchstone not only for black film, but also for hip-hop culture. Part gritty urban realism, part ridiculous male fantasy, The Mack stars charismatic, honey-voiced Max Julien as a small-time crook who gets locked up and emerges from prison eager to make up for lost time. With guidance and support from a sort of pimping Yoda, Julien becomes the city's top pimp, eventually attaining the coveted "Mack Of The Year" title at the Players' Ball. Julien's profession alienates him from his idealistic, Black Power-oriented brother (Roger Mosley), but with the help of fast-talking sidekick Richard Pryor, Julien succeeds in ridding the streets of drug dealers, corrupt cops, and other undesirables. A riveting mixture of truth and bullshit, The Mack tries to have it both ways. Its protagonist is a smooth-talker who controls women's minds and bodies, and audiences are invited to revel in his forbidden power and glamour, but he also gives money to kids, buys his beloved mom a new house, and cleans up the streets. The Mack also laid the groundwork for hip-hop's rampant materialism by presenting black wealth as an end to itself. In the film's most revealing bit of dialogue, Julien tells Mosley, "Being rich and black means something, don't you understand that? Being poor and black don't mean shit." The Mack isn't overly concerned with the exploited and abused women Julien steps on; instead, it concentrates on celebrating its hero's "indomitable spirit," as Julien characterizes it on the commentary track to The Mack's DVD. That track tells riveting backstage stories, and in both the commentary and a thrilling documentary also on the DVD, white producer Harvey Bernhard emerges as the production's heavy. Julien, who helped script The Mack, claims that Bernhard and director Michael Campus cut out a speech designed to humanize the prostitutes, and inserted a scene involving a corrupt cop and an obese black hooker, against Julien's strong objections. Concerned that Bernhard was exploiting the cast, a coked-up Pryor at one point urged Julien to join him in physically attacking the producer. Pryor undoubtedly overreacted, but there's a germ of truth to his belief that Bernhard, ultimately, was playing the role of the pimp.
More from The A.V. Club