Max Julien, star of a cult blaxploitation film, dies at 88
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Max Julien, star of a cult blaxploitation film, dies at 88
Black audiences flocked to see him in “The Mack,” and generations of cinephiles have paid homage to his star turn, his smooth delivery and his extraordinary costumes.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Max Julien, the sultry, soft-voiced actor and screenwriter who rose to pop culture prominence with his starring role in “The Mack,” a 1973 film about the rise and fall of a pimp, died Jan. 1 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 88.

His wife, Arabella Chavers Julien, said the cause was cardiopulmonary arrest.

“The Mack” is the story of Goldie, a young man who is framed and sent to jail, and who upon his release aims to make his fortune and his name by becoming a pimp. (The word “mack” is an Americanization of “maquereau,” French street slang for pimp.) It’s a hero’s journey, played out on the mean streets of Oakland, California, a real-life war zone in the early 1970s presided over by Black crime lords and Black militants, who battled each other for turf.

Julien’s Goldie had a gentle gravitas and a kinetic sidekick, portrayed by Richard Pryor. Julien said that he and Pryor, working off a story written in prison by an actual convict, wrote much of the screenplay, although they did not receive credit on screen.

In the decades since its release, “The Mack” has accrued legions of devotees who can recite its lines verbatim. Artists like Snoop Dogg, Too Short and others have sampled its dialogue in their work. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to it in his script for the 1993 film “True Romance.” In 2013, when the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art held a screening in honor of the film’s 40th anniversary, Tarantino lent his vintage 35 mm print.

“The film is a blaxploitation classic,” said Todd Boyd, chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Part of the film’s legend is that Oakland’s crime boss, Frank Ward, gave the filmmakers his protection so they could shoot there. (He has a cameo as himself, dispensing pimp wisdom in a barbershop scene as a barber tends to his kingly locks.) The movie’s vernacular and its rituals were authentic, and they still fascinate, as do the clothes.

Goldie’s single-breasted white fur maxi coat was a character in its own right. (Years later, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons would offer Julien $10,000 for it, Julien told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. It now lives in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.) Julien had a hand in the film’s costumes and made sure they were crafted by local Black clothing designers, he said in a 2002 documentary about the film.

While the blaxploitation genre was problematic for some — Junius Griffin, then president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, coined the term and described its themes as “just another form of cultural genocide” — urban Black audiences flocked to movies like “The Mack.” (The Los Angeles Times noted in 2013 that it was released in only 20-odd theaters in African American communities but quoted its director, Michael Campus, as saying it did better in those cities than “The Godfather” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”)

Such movies “were critic-proof,” Boyd said. “People were not reading Pauline Kael reviews to determine if they should go see these films.”

Melvin Van Peebles had set the tone with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” his independently made 1971 box office hit about a performer in a sex show turned revolutionary. Gordon Parks’ “Shaft,” less transgressive but still wildly popular, appeared the same year.

By the late 1970s, the blaxploitation category had fizzled out. A decade later, young cinephiles and hip-hop artists would devour VHS tapes of “The Mack” and other gems from that era — a trove of movies with powerful Black imagery that also included “Super Fly” and “Black Caesar.”

“Because of Hollywood’s racism,” Boyd said, “at the time there was just not that much else. And the tale of an underworld figure like Goldie, working outside the system, was enormously appealing to the young rising stars of a new musical genre, gangsta rap.”

Julien worked as a screenwriter, too. “Cleopatra Jones” (1973), which he wrote, featured a different kind of hero, on the right side of the law. It starred statuesque Tamara Dobson as a machine-gun-toting, martial-arts-swirling model and undercover agent on a mission to rid her community of drugs. (Shelley Winters played a drug lord named Mommy.)

He also wrote “Thomasine & Bushrod,” a lightly feminist western, released in 1974, and starred in it with Vonetta McGee, his girlfriend at the time. The film brings to mind a sweeter and goofier version of the 1967 movie “Bonnie & Clyde.” Julien said he was inspired by the exploits of a great-grandfather, a bank robber named Bushrod, to turn his family history into a love story.

Maxwell Julien Banks was born July 12, 1933, in Washington, D.C. His father, Seldon Bushrod Banks, was an airline mechanic. His mother, Cora (Page) Banks, was a restaurant owner. She was murdered in her home in 1972, and Julien said that his grief over her death influenced his performance in “The Mack.”

He won a basketball scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he spent a year before transferring to Howard University in Washington. He joined the Air Force in 1955 and was an air traffic controller before beginning his acting career. He took his middle name as his stage name because he felt it sounded more theatrical than Banks.

Julien played a Black militant in “Getting Straight,” a much-panned 1970 drama about campus unrest starring Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen, and appeared in “Uptight,” a 1968 update of the 1935 movie “The Informer” written by Ruby Dee and directed by Jules Dassin. He also acted on television.

He and Chavers Julien married in 1991. She is his only immediate survivor.

As much as Julien enjoyed the accolades from generations of “The Mack” fans — he appeared as a suave, pimplike elder in the 1997 comedy “How to Be a Player” — he told Boyd that he often felt his Goldie character overshadowed his own persona.

Early on, he also disliked the term “blaxploitation,” which he felt diminished his work.

“The average white audience has had opportunities to explore every facet of their existence by now,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1974, the year “Thomasine & Bushrod” was released. “No one ever talks about white exploitation films. If ‘The Sting’ had been done by Ron O’Neal” — the star of “Super Fly” — “and Max Julien, everyone would have called it Black exploitation. A 10-year-old kid came up to us in Baltimore and thanked us for making the picture. He said he’d read about Black cowboys all his life but didn’t believe it until he saw it on the screen.”

He added: “Blacks didn’t want to see ‘Sounder’” — the 1972 film taken from the book of the same name about a poor Black boy, his dog and the grim travails of his sharecropping family in the 1930s. “That’s not the image they want. They’ve seen that image all their life.”

This article originally appeared in The The New York Times.

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