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Max Julien, star of Blaxploitation classic 'The Mack,' has died at 88

Max Julien, as he appeared in the groundbreaking 1973 film <em>The Mack.</em>
Courtesy of SCM Entertainment and Media
Max Julien, as he appeared in the groundbreaking 1973 film The Mack.

The actor Max Julien, star of the classic 1973 Blaxploitation film The Mack, has died. According to his wife Arabella Chavers Julien, he died early Saturday morning. He was 88. No further details were provided.

A classically trained actor born on July 12, 1933, in Washington, D.C., Julien began his career in off-Broadway theater before pivoting to film. His further cinematic credits include 1968's Psych-Out and 1970's Getting Straight. Julien also co-wrote and co-produced another Blaxploitation milestone, 1973's Cleopatra Jones. Later in his career, Julien made guest appearances on television series including The Mod Squad and One on One, and pursued other creative outlets like fashion design and sculpture.

"During Julien's decades-long career, he was known for being bold, honest and straightforward," read a statement from his representative. "He would live and speak his own truth both professionally and privately."

Before The Mack, Julien gained attention for his standout role in 1968's Uptight, where he took on the role of Johnny Wells, a Black revolutionary leader. While some critics called his character militant, Julien was ambivalent about the term. "I didn't mind being called a militant, because I am a militant," Julien later said in a 1981 BET interview. But he bristled at how the label overshadowed the rest of his character: "The man also loved his mother, he loved his friends, he had human levels. But they never relate to that."

Julien brought those human qualities to his starring role in The Mack. He played Goldie, an Oakland-based pimp ambitious to make it to the top. Directed by Michael Campus, the political movie examined the state of Black life in America. In a 2002 documentary about the movie, titled Mackin' Ain't Easy, Julien noted that there was an air of sadness in his character, "because that's where I was as a human being, and I couldn't hide that. That is me."

The film first screened in mostly Black markets, where it was a huge hit. In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Campus said that when the film was shown in Oakland, people stood up and started screaming at the screen by the first scene. "They never sat down. No one had shown that world — no one had portrayed the black underworld," he said.

The Mack, and its soundtrack by Willie Hutch, became hugely influential to hip hop, serving as a reference point for rappers from Dr. Dre to A$AP Rocky. The director Quentin Tarantino paid homage to Julien and The Mack with a film-clip cameo in his 1993 film, True Romance.

"He's still the hero to this day," said Julien in the 2002 documentary about his character, Goldie. But not for his pimping: "It's because of that other thing that he has, that indomitable spirit that he has that, 'you cannot stop me,' and 'you cannot mash me down without me coming back at you.'"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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