When director Michael Campus’s The Mack was released in 1973, it played in only 22 theaters. Even though it did decent business in its limited run, the drama starring Max Julien, Don Gordon, and Richard Pryor about a man who returns from prison to become the king of the pimps in Oakland seemed destined to remain a cultural blip. It wasn’t even released on video.
But then people got hold of the wonderful soundtrack, Quentin Tarantino started touting it as one of his favorites and wrote it into Tony Scott’s True Romance, prolific rappers like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre began referencing it in their songs, and a cult classic was born. It even got a DVD release in 2002. Just don’t call it “blaxploitation.”
At The Mack’s 40th anniversary screening presented by Film Independent at LACMA, film critic Elvis Mitchell called the term reductive, and Campus resoundingly agreed. “Blaxploitation connotes Hollywood pictures that were designed to make money off of a black audience,” Campus told EW. “I lived in Oakland for months and got to know that world. The Mack is the true story of the Oakland underworld and their war with the Black Panthers. It’s night and day from blaxploitation.”
Campus credits his high-profile admirers for helping to solidify The Mack’s place in film history. “Quentin began to talk about it and then Snoop and Dre and all the other hip-hop artists began to talk about it and kept it alive,” he said. “Then gradually a young white audience began to hear about it, think about it, and know about it because of the music. That changed everything.” Storied Motown producer Willie Hutch’s score was the only part of the film available for purchase until New Line released the DVD. Featuring songs like “Slick” and “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” the album had a handful of singles on the charts.
The audience at LACMA did not get to experience the film as it was intended to be heard. Instead, those who turned out saw a film with a somewhat cheesy early Alan Silvestri score. Quentin Tarantino offered his rare personal 35mm print of the film, which happened to be a re-released version. “I consider it a tragedy,” said Campus, who loves the Hutch score as much as those who helped put the film in the cult cannon, but was extremely grateful to show the 35mm print. There are very few in existence. Still, Campus added: “I hope that everybody will get a chance to hear the original score.”
Entertainment Weekly anointed The Mack one of our Cult Classics in 2003. After it earned number 20 on the list, Campus said “suddenly the phones started ringing off the hook. People were like, ‘wait a minute, The Mack and Michael Campus are ahead of Buñuel? The Coen brothers?’ That was an amazing turning point. People in the Hollywood establishment noticed, too. People realized it was a special film.”