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review added: 9/20/02



The Mack
New Line Platinum Series - 1973 (2002) - New Line

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

The Mack: Platinum Series Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/B-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B-/B-

Specs and Features

110 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, Snapper case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:12:00 in chapter 16), audio commentary (with star Max Julien, director Michael Campus, producer Harvey Bernhard and actors Dick Anthony Williams, Annazette Chase, Don Gordon and George Murdock), Mackin' Ain't Easy documentary, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1, DD 2.0 Stereo Surround & DD 1.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned


Like any arbitrary film "genre", blaxploitation often gets painted with an unfairly wide brush. Depending on who you talk to, the term conjures up images of Pam Grier kickin' ass and takin' names in movies like Coffy, reinterpreted horror icons in movies like Blacula, or even the Human Tornado himself, Rudy Ray Moore rhyming his way through the Dolemite series. As entertaining as some of these movies are (and I think they all have their virtues), the enduring classics of black 1970's cinema are the movies that take things a little bit more seriously. The great blaxploitation pictures are movies like Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song and the quintessential pimp flick, The Mack.

Released in 1973, The Mack follows Goldie (Max Julien), fresh out of prison and determined to make a name for himself on the streets of Oakland, CA as a player. In almost no time (literally), Goldie has recruited a group of girls and, together with his right-hand man Slim (Richard Pryor), becomes one of the biggest "macks" in the game. But the road to the top is never easy. Goldie still has to contend with a pair of corrupt cops, the rest of Oakland's players, including Pretty Tony (Dick Anthony Williams), and the criminal kingpin known as the Fatman (George Murdock), a white drug pusher Goldie used to work for back in the day when he was hooked on the needle. Not to mention, Goldie has to do right by his loving mother (Juanita Moore, Oscar-nominated for her work in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life) and Black Nationalist brother (a pre-Magnum P.I. Roger E. Mosley).

The Mack is a far cry from being a perfect film. For starters, its fragmented story is all over the map. Repeatedly through the fim, a character would be brought back into play who I'd almost completely forgotten about. Also, certain plot threads are introduced and either abandoned or wrapped up in a hurried, somewhat confusing manner. But despite its flaws, The Mack remains one of the most memorable examples of 70's black cinema. Part of its appeal lies in its top-notch cast. Julien anchors the movie but there really isn't a bad performance in the film (and how many blaxploitation movies can you say that about?). In addition, the dialogue is a notch above most low-budget action pictures. The screenplay was apparently substantially rewritten by Julien, Pryor and director Michael Campus from the original treatment by credited screenwriter Robert J. Poole. These three added memorable, realistic dialogue (most of which I wouldn't dare quote in this review) and some honest and thoughtful consideration of the role of the pimp in the black community.

But what is most remarkable about The Mack is its authenticity. Apart from Julien and Williams, most of the players in the movie are real pimps playing themselves. Even if you didn't know that before watching the movie (and I certainly didn't), you can't help but feel the documentary-style realism of scenes like the Players Ball. This blend of reality and fiction lands The Mack in the company of such films as Haskell Wexler's 1969 classic Medium Cool. It's an honest and unflinching glimpse of life in Oakland in the early 70's.

The New Line Platinum Series banner adorning a DVD case has come to represent the finest picture and sound quality a studio can offer. Of course, almost all of New Line's titles in this series are relatively recent films, so the source material is going to be of substantially higher quality. First of all, here's the good news about The Mack. You won't find a single instance of digital video noise on this disc. No artifacts, no edge enhancement... nothing. Plus, it's 16x9 enhanced for added resolution. The bad news is that this movie is almost 30 years old and was shot for less money than most studios spend on craft services, even in '73. The picture is soft and grainy. The colors are solid, if somewhat faded. And worst of all, shadow delineation is virtually non-existent. If something in the frame isn't lit and lit well, it just disappears into a solid void of darkness. And that's kind of troublesome in a movie like this that takes place mostly at night. In most shots, you can't tell where Julien's mile-high Afro ends and the wall behind him begins. But the print is generally free of dirt and scratches, so odds are this is about as good as The Mack is ever going to look.

For audio, New Line presents a whole spectrum of choices from the original 1.0 mono track for purists all the way up to a brand new DTS 5.1 mix for audiophiles. But again, don't expect the world. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes are sonic underachievers, leaving most of the dialogue, music and effects front and center. In fact, whenever these tracks did try to open up the soundscape, I found it distracting and harsh. Ultimately, I ditched all of the remixes and preferred the original mono track. It's perfectly serviceable, without the low roar of white noise substituting for spatiality that occasionally comes out of the rear speakers in the surround tracks.

Extras also seem a bit paltry compared to other Platinum Series titles, but both of these bonuses are terrific. The 38-minute documentary, Mackin' Ain't Easy (produced by Laura Nix for Automat Pictures), is a fine look at The Mack's turbulent history. Besides the usual problems inherent in low-budget filmmaking, The Mack had to deal with their technical advisors/protectors, Oakland's notorious Ward Brothers (who appear in the film as themselves). Their association with the Wards also landed them smack in the middle of an ongoing struggle between Oakland's criminal element and the Black Panthers, led by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. The behind-the-scenes story is every bit as interesting as what turned up on screen. In fact, Makin' The Mack would be a great movie in its own right (and if any studio execs are reading this, don't forget where you got the idea from). In addition to new interviews with Julien, Campus and others behind-the-scenes, the documentary provides social context from prominent Mack fans like the Hughes brothers (who would be the ideal directors for Makin' The Mack… if you guys are reading this, feel free to drop me a line if you're interested) and author and USC professor Dr. Todd Boyd.

The commentary track features no less than seven participants and usually that's a sign of trouble. The more voices you hear on a commentary, the more disjointed and unlistenable it tends to become. Not so here. Each person was recorded separately and edited together into a seamless whole. New Line also consistently identifies each new speaker before they begin, a nice touch that too many studios neglect. Julien dominates the track, and rightly so since he's so strongly identified with the film. He's got plenty to say, whether he's telling tales about his friendship with Richard Pryor or commenting on the ultimately meaningless "blaxploitation" label (he quite rightly observes that the Oscar-winning Training Day would be tagged blaxploitation had it come out a few decades earlier). The commentary generally avoids treading ground already covered by the documentary, making it a real companion piece and a must-listen. Unfortunately, that's it as far as extras go. The only thing I really missed is the original trailer, since blaxploitation trailers are almost always great, but I'm still more than happy with what we get.

The Mack is a movie I'd heard of for years but had never been able to track down a copy of. Thanks to New Line, a very entertaining and, I'd argue, important movie can now be seen by a wider audience. In studio terms, New Line is still the new kid on the block, so they don't exactly have very deep vaults to root around in for buried treasure. That said, I'm glad they made the effort to unearth The Mack.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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