TCM Underground: The Mack (1973) and Super Fly (1972)

The Mack (1973)

Beginning in the middle of a shootout with the cops, Goldie (Max Julien) crashes his car and is apprehended–but not immediately, the crooked detectives bitch about how much paperwork is involved when they have to call an ambulance–and sentenced to five years in prison.  Goldie’s five years are shown in an unglamorous montage, his sanity slowly slipping away as guards keep him awake by banging on the bars on his cell.

When Goldie gets out, he wastes no time finding work.  He is given the job of a pimp by Blind Man (Paul Harris) and gets his first girl under his employ that same evening, a woman named Lulu (Carol Speed).  Goldie at first has delusions of his position, believing himself to be a man of the people, even showing up in the neighborhood with a wad of cash to divvy up among the children and chiding them when they say they want to grow up and be just like them.  “Don’t ever say that,” he says.  “Be a doctor or a lawyer.”  He even threatens to not have money next time for a kid he heard had been skipping school.

Goldie’s altruistic facade fades pretty quickly, as his success seems to deteriorate his goodness, the greed encompassing him.  Lulu comes crying to him one night, explaining a situation she got herself into and he makes it clear, without mincing words, that he doesn’t give a shit about her and to get back out there and make him more money.

On his rise to success, being one of the foremost pimps in Oakland, Goldie must contend with crooked police officers that want a cut of his money and a gangster by the name of Fat Man who wants his cut, too, and wants Goldie to get into other ventures like drugs.  Goldie, though, is content.  He’s pulling in $2,000 a week and is fine where he is.  This upsets everyone involved.

Meanwhile, Goldie’s brother Olinga (Roger E. Mosley), a Black Nationalist, is concentrated on cleaning up the streets of drug dealers, prostitutes and crime.  The two brothers don’t see eye-to-eye, but nonetheless still love each other.  The crooked police complain about Olinga costing them an awful lot of money on the drug trade, which of course they are heavily invested in.

Richard Pryor co-stars as slim, Goldie’s right-hand man.  I wish he could have been in the movie more because he and Max Julien have genuine chemistry in their dialogue scenes, riffing off of one another with a sort of natural breeziness that feels real.

The true story behind the filming of The Mack is possibly more interesting than the film itself.  Director Michael Campus shot on locations that were under real-life pimp Frank Ward’s territory.  Campus worked with Ward, basing the character of Goldie off of him, and even put him and his brother in a cameo.  Campus also shot in areas being cleaned up by the Black Panthers and paid them for protection on those locations.  During filming, Ward was murdered and it’s been suspected that someone aligned with the Panthers may have done it.

There are a lot of great scenes in The Mack, including one where Goldie tosses a small troll of a thug into a dumpster after he’s told, “Tomorrow I might still be a greaseball, but you’ll still be black.”  At nearly two hours in length though, it’s way too long.  The Mack would have been a damn good 90-minute movie, it just needed quicker pacing.  It’s a fantastic movie, though, as-is.  It’s a movie with opinions and thoughtful insight on the Black Community.  The film’s exploitative poster portrays an entirely different movie than the one that had actually been shot.  Pimping is not glorified.  It’s shown as a sick business that prays on women and cripples communities and shows that attempting to rise above the filth while in that position is delusional.  Goldie’s turn toward menace is among a fine tradition in film and television, along the ranks of Michael Corleone and Walter White.

Carol Speed had a good career in blaxploitation cinema.  She was also in the exorcism horror film Abby, which I got to see this year.  She was offered a part in Jackie Brown, but unfortunately turned it down at the last minute.

I’m surprised Max Julien didn’t have a more prolific career.  He’s an incredibly talented actor.  He was a bit of a writer too, co-writing Cleopatra Jones.

Super Fly (1972)

The problem with a lot of blaxploitation movies is that they are, unfortunately, kind of dull, which is surprising given the material.  Super Fly is a bit dull in execution, but has enough going for it to keep it afloat.  At the time that it came out though, it was revolutionary, and viewing it through a historical lens, it is an iconic game-changer, and one worth seeing.  If I complained that The Mack was too long at two hours, and should have been about 90 minutes, Super Fly is overlong at 90 minutes and could have probably been a good, tight hour-long flick.

Super Fly is one of those “One last score” movies, with Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) looking to get out of the cocaine business.  Super Fly‘s general plot is sort of like the anti-MackSuper Fly is about getting out while the getting’s good and isn’t nearly as concerned with the social implications of crime.  The film justifies Priest’s dealings by showing that his product, pure and uncut, is going to rich white people, and not the inner-city youth that would probably become dependent on the product in real life.  His goal is to, in four months, rack up a million dollars and then quit the business for good.

Things get complicated when one of Preist’s crew gets arrested and his interrogation (well, more like torture) by the police threatens to unravel the whole damn thing.  The cops want Priest to keep working and rely on kickbacks.  With him out of the picture, a substantial piece of income is missing.

Shot on a shoestring budget, Super Fly spends its money well on things that would stick in an audience’s mind, namely the score by Curtis Mayfield.  The music is fantastic, if overused.  They play “Pusherman”, I swear to god, maybe four times.  At one point, a character picks up a record and begins playing the film’s soundtrack!  The film may look rough, with some inconsistent lighting and sound, but goddamn if Priest’s car, a customized Cadillac, isn’t one of the coolest in cinematic history.

Carl Lee as Eddie, the right-hand man to Priest, has some of the best lines, broadening the film’s scope from morally dubious to morally ambiguous, describing the life of a drug dealer as the American Dream, having color TVs in every room of the house.  The film really does walk a fine line of ambiguity by having both villainous cops and cops who have genuine interest in someone’s health and well-being.  What we’re seeing is a slice of life of a character and his actions without having those actions affect anything really much more than the plot.  Super Fly is a microcosm, not a macrocosm.

Priest, though, is a good character for this film.  He’s not a superman.  He’s not infallible.  He makes a lot of mistakes, but he’s intelligent enough to have some foresight just in case.  The film begins with a bang, showing real locations of New York ghettos, slags in the middle, but then picks up again at the end with a genuinely good finale.  The finale doesn’t rely on a car chase or on a shootout, but instead on a scheme that Priest had been working out in his head that finally paid off for him, as he whispers to someone that he arranged a hit with some contract killer.  “White killers,” he says.  “The best killers in the world.”

Super Fly is surprisingly low on violence.  Most of the twist and turns that the plot takes the viewer on relies on decisions that either Priest, the police, or someone he’s aligned with making, not because character was thrown into the metaphorical blender to keep things interesting.  It’s a pretty well-grounded drama, anchored by some fine performances, some great music and real location shots.

Next Week: The Night Visitor and The Exorcist II.  I’ve heard The Exorcist II is batshit insane, so I’m looking forward to it.  I saw the underrated third one and loved it.