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ReDiggin' the Scene

Blaxploitation films and related cultural touchstones of the '70s are inspiring a big-screen revival.

June 30, 1997|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Mack"--the 1973 blaxploitation classic--may be back. If producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson have their way, Goldie the pimp will go before the cameras in '90s garb--perhaps by the end of the year.

Eyeing a hip-hop culture heavily influenced by that imagery and tremendous African American want-to-see, the duo--like a host of others in Hollywood's creative community--is drawing inspiration from the genre. Convinced they can surmount the hurdle of political incorrectness, they're hoping for a go-ahead from 20th Century Fox, the studio they call home.

" 'The Mack' is the greatest film of the exploitation era, a morality play about an anti-hero with a code who runs a game to survive," said McHenry, who, with his partner, is responsible for movies such as "New Jack City," "Jason's Lyric," and the second and third installments of the "House Party" series.

"And the conditions that produced Goldie are still relevant. We're going after a bigger, more epic film--not a remake. We see it as 'Pulp Fiction' meets 'Scarface.' "

"The Mack" is a Horatio Alger tale about a charismatic petty criminal (Max Julien) who turns to pimping after his parole. With help from his sidekick (Richard Pryor), he rises to the top of the heap--fending off opposition from the Fat Man, Pretty Tony and two racist cops, only to find himself morally bankrupt in the end. Though many of the actors were plucked off the street, the appeal of the movie lay as much in its campy humor as in its indictment of the urban reality.

Their project, Jackson predicts, would resonate with the "disenfranchised"--which the producer asserts is a larger chunk of the populace than most people suspect. "We're going to try to expose society's hypocrisy, get the roaches out from under the carpet," he said. "Gangster films take an uncompromising view of what has come to be known as the 'American way.' "

Like music and fashion of the 1970s, so-called blaxploitation films--gritty, sex- and violence-laden, low-budget pictures aimed at African American audiences--and other movies and television shows of the era are inspiring a revival. Director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") is peddling an updated version of "Shaft" (1971), a project that Paul Hall and Scott Rudin are set to produce; Danny DeVito's Jersey Films is developing the 1974 detective TV series "Get Christie Love" as a feature film for Whitney Houston and Universal Pictures; and even cult figure Rudy Ray Moore, the stand-up comedian who played Dolemite in the 1975 karate gangster spoof, is trying to get a remake, "Dolemite 2000," off the ground.

Quentin Tarantino, a longtime blaxploitation fan, has changed the race of the flight attendant in "Jackie Brown"--a movie based on Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch"--so he could cast Pam Grier, star of such '70s films as "Coffy," in the lead. (Tarantino also has decided to release Jerry Martinez's book "What It Is, What It Was," a volume on the imagery and impact of blaxploitation films, as the first release from his Rolling Thunder book division.)

Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinema and Television, links the revival to the pervasiveness of rap. "Many of the images and icons of blaxploitation films, available on video, provided the basis for characters the rappers created--Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Doggy Dogg, etc.," he said. "And the 1970s were so outlandish in presentation and attitude that pictures such as 'Casino,' 'Dead Presidents' and 'Nixon' have had fun trying to reconfigure the period. There was a naivete and a boldness contemporary society doesn't allow."

Rappers sample or remix previously recorded material, industry observers note--a trend catching on in society at large. "Street culture imitates movies and, after a while, movies imitate street culture," said Michael Shamberg, who is partnered in Jersey Films with Stacey Sher and DeVito. "Kids today pick and choose, looking for something fresh. That's where 'Christie Love' comes in. No one has tapped that strain yet--and we're hoping it will catch on."

"The Mack," with its built-in following, would seem to have more than an even chance to catch on. When McHenry and Jackson were at Savoy Pictures two years ago, they approached "Mack" producer Harvey Bernhard with the intent of acquiring the rights. When the company was dismantled in 1996, they signed an exclusive deal with Fox. The studio became immediately interested in a new version of the film, which was originally shot for $250,000 in Oakland.

In the next week, screenwriter Ben Ramsey will submit his first draft. If the studio reacts well, casting and budgeting of the mid-range picture will get underway. The filmmakers say they've been besieged by requests to audition for Goldie. They refuse to discuss the leading contenders, but acknowledge that rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg has been mentioned.

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