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Bernie Mac, a Chicago original, captured in new documentary

The documentary “I Ain’t Scared You” has abundant footage Bernie Mac’s formative years Chicago.

The documentary “I Ain’t Scared of You” has abundant footage of Bernie Mac’s formative years in Chicago.

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Updated: March 18, 2012 8:10AM

Comedy is a solitary march into a stiff wind.

Bernie McCullough knew this. The comedian, known as Bernie Mac, was born and raised in Englewood. The hawk, the talk and the walk live there.

Mac died of complications from an autoimmune disease in 2008 in Chicago. He was only 50 years old. Mac’s monologues embraced the gritty pacing and attitude of rhythm and blues, but his message came with a smile that was nurtured by family.

This is the connective thread of the documentary “I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute To Bernie Mac,” which debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on Comedy Central and comes out Tuesday on DVD.

The fast-paced, 42-minute documentary is a love letter to Mac’s Chicago roots as well as his family.

His widow, Rhonda McCullough, was the driving force behind the project, sourcing footage of Mac’s salad days in Chicago. Their only child, Je’Niece, conducted interviews. A galaxy of colleagues — Cameron Diaz, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Chris Rock (he still keeps Mac’s phone number in his iPhone) — pay tribute.

Samuel L. Jackson speaks of how Mac became his “Chicago guy” and Mac would play golf with Jackson every time he visited Chicago.

There’s great stuff there, but “I Ain’t Scared of You” is anchored by Mac’s warmth. After Mac won the 1990 Miller Lite Comedy Search in Chicago, his wife said she did a “holy ghost dance.” What did Mac do?

He put his $3,000 prize in his daughter’s name for her college education.

The doc got its title from a line Mac delivered after he followed a comedian who was booed at a Def Comedy Jam performance in New York.

Scared? Mac was from Chicago.

He married Rhonda in 1977 when he was working as a maintenance engineer at General Motors in Pullman. He later became a delivery driver for Wonder Bread in North Riverside, where he found the work so mundane he moved forward with his dream to pursue comedy in long-gone Chicago joints like Spices.

He got one of his first big breaks in the late 1980s, winning a “Best of Open Mike” contest at the since-closed Cotton Club, 1710 S. Michigan, in the period when R. Kelly was cutting his chops in the room.

“I Ain’t Scared of You” features precious footage of Mac in his 1994-99 Tuesday night rotation at Milt Treiner’s Lounge, then at 600 N. Lake Shore. Basketball great Shaquille O’Neal is in the house, and big Mac talks X-rated trash with the big man.

During this period, Mac led the Mac Man Band & the Macaronis. The eclectic, rambunctious nature of the Treniers singing group was his template. He was proud that “The Bernie Mac Show” on Fox (2001-06) incorporated singing, dancing, juggling and more. This is the variety the Treniers used in the 1950s by singing rhythm and blues in the lounges of Las Vegas.

Mac was a good student.

Carl Reiner, who took him under his wing, tells Mac’s daughter about her father’s signature gesture, a quick snap of the hand which accented the pop of his delivery. “I Ain’t Scared of You” begins in a rock-star arena setting with Mac declaring, “I love who I am. I love what I’ve become.” Gritty race issues on the South Side are not ignored as Rhonda recalls her mother’s amusement about just how black Mac was. “I’m so black,” Mac was fond of saying, “I leave fingerprints on coal.”

Mac honed his craft in Chicago and kept true to his roots, which is what made his style uniquely down-home urban. The documentary’s ambient aerial and street shots of Chicago harmonize with Mac’s loyalty. Bernie Mac belongs with John Belushi, Bill Murray and Bob Newhart in the Mount Rushmore of Chicago comedians.

“I Ain’t Scared of You” boldly steps out of the neighborhood and confirms that fact.

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