As a young teenaged-Black boy facing the throes of puberty, the actors who dominated the screen in Blaxploitation classics during the early 70s served as formidable instructors in my arduous march toward and into manhood.
And while some have long criticized the cult for its often negative images of Black men and women that pervaded the screen, for me and my friends, the stars of films that included “Shaft,” “The Mack,” “Super Fly” and “Coffy” served as our heroes and heroines.
They were strong, independent, sharp as a tack and most important, unwilling to yield to the hardships, hatred and prejudice that characterized “the man” – white men who still held the reins in racist America and refused to give Blacks a fair shot at realizing our dreams – the so-called “American Dream.”
We were just beginning to believe in the possibility of actually realizing an identify best described as “young, gifted and Black.” We were just hearing and repeating the mantra made famous by James Brown: “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” And I was bound and determined to be proud – just like my Dad.
And so, with our afros, bell bottoms, dashikis and a swag still in its pubescence stage, it would be beautiful Black men and women like Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Fred Williamson and Max Julien who gave us hope.
These formidable thespians came to mind recently after news reports revealed that Max Julien, the star in the 1973 Blaxploitation classic, “The Mack,” had died on January 1 in Los Angeles at the age of 88.
A native Washingtonian and classically-trained actor, Julien attended Howard University where he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. in 1954. He began his career in off-Broadway theater before turning to film. But it would be his portrayal of Goldie, an Oakland-based pimp determined to make it to the top at any cost, for which Julien will be most remembered.
As the movie begins, John “Goldie” Mickens gets out of prison and finds that his brother is into Black nationalism. But that’s not on his radar. Goldie wants to be the biggest, baddest pimp in California.
Clearly, I had no aspirations to become a pimp nor a mover and shaker in the darker aspects of society. However, Julien added dimensions to his role that helped me realize something profound about other Black men. Despite the negative persona associated with his “profession,” Julien as the Mack refused to allow his label to overshadow other aspects of his personality. He loved his mother and his friends and experienced the full array of human emotions. Some might call these the redeeming qualities of his character.
As for me, watching Max Julien personify the business-minded pimp Goldie showed me that neither people or things are ever as simple or one-dimensional as they may seem.
“The Mack” served as a political expose that took a hard look at the state of Black life in America. Julien would say about his character in a 2002 documentary about the film, “Mackin’ Ain’t Easy,” that there was a sense of sadness in the figure he portrayed “because that’s where I was as a human being and I couldn’t hide that. That is me,” he said.
The film first screened in mostly Black markets and quickly became a hit. In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the film’s director, David Campus, said when the film debuted in Oakland, people stood up and started screaming at the screen by the first scene.
I did the same thing when I saw it as a 13-year-old boy.
“They never sat down. No one had shown that world – no one had portrayed the Black underworld,” Campus said.
Adding to his many accomplishments, Julien also co-wrote and co-produced another hit of the Blaxploitation era, “Cleopatra Jones,” which featured Tamara Dobson and Bernie Casey.
The Blaxploitation film genre, initially launched by Black actors and directors in the ‘70s to illustrate “controversial” slices of life in their communities, has had its time in the sun and in the shadows.
But I will always have fond memories of going to the Mercury Theater, the neighborhood show on the westside of Detroit for Saturday matinees. Too young to date, I went with my besties: Mark, Roger, Michael, David and Ronald.
And we, like so many others in the audience, talked to the actors on the screen in movies that we would never forget: “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Blacula,” “Black Caesar,” “Dolemite” and “Foxy Brown.”
Those were the days.
Rest in Peace, Brother Max Julien – the Mack and the Man.