Appellate Judge Tom Becker can see how this film might have given some people the vapors.
"I done think you was somehow better than a white man."
Warren Maxwell (James Mason, Lolita) and his son, Hammond (Perry King, The Wild Party), make their money off their slaves, breeding and selling them. Like many in 1840's Louisiana, the Maxwells consider blacks to be just barely human; any indignities heaped on the slaves are for their own good.
Young Hammond enjoys the company of black women, his "bed wenches." When they invariably become pregnant by him, their "suckers"—the babies he's fathered—are treated no different from any other slave. Hammond is kind enough to the women, but feels no connection to his offspring.
When Hammond makes a trip out of town, he returns with a wife, Blanche (Susan George, Straw Dogs); Ellen (Brenda Sykes), a new "bed wench;" and Mede (Ken Norton), a prized Mandingo, tall and strong, good for fighting and breeding.
These three should be ushering in a new era for the Maxwells: Blanche can provide a legitimate heir to continue the family name, Ellen can keep Hammond satisfied enough that he won't put any untoward sexual demands on his wife, and Papa has always wanted to breed Mandingo slaves.
Unfortunately, Hammond despises his new wife, having discovered a secret about her on their wedding night, and Blanche is appalled when she sees the Maxwells' estate, Falconhurst, a dilapidated monstrosity, overgrown and unkempt.
More upsetting to her is that her husband's feelings for Ellen are far deeper than a master would normally have for his slave.
As for Mede…well, he ends up serving a number of purposes in the household.
In 1975, Blaxploitation had already peaked and found its way into the suburbs. Radical Chic was already passé and had been satirized by indie filmmakers like Robert Downey (Putney Swope) and Brian De Palma (Hi, Mom). Roots was still two years away, but The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman had given television audiences a dignified look at slavery and the civil rights movement.
Then along came Mandingo, a film about slavery that put the degradations front and center. It featured copious nudity, including a full-frontal from one of the male stars; interracial sex; graphic violence, including a lynching; and subplots involving incest, madness, rape, and infanticide. Had it not been made by a major studio, it might have popped up briefly on the grindhouse circuit and then disappeared.
But Mandingo was a Paramount film, directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, whose work ranged from intriguing (Ten Rillington Place, Compulsion) to appalling (Dr. Doolittle, Che!). It starred the respected James Mason, hot up-and-comers Perry King and Susan George, and heavyweight boxer Ken Norton, who was looking to follow in the footsteps of athletes-turned-actors like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, and Muhammed Ali. Thus, it warranted attention.
And it got it.
Mandingo was savaged by critics on its release, but audiences, lured by the promises of lots of sex, violence, and assorted sordidness, made it enough of a hit to warrant a sequel (Drum, 1976). It developed a reputation as a classically bad movie, was considered racist and offensive, and has something of a cult following.
As is often the case with films that are initially critically assailed, it's not the atrocity it's reputed to be, though I don't know that I'd call it a neglected masterwork. Certainly, it is a far better film than its reputation would have you believe.
Basically a Southern-gothic horror show, Mandingo is unsettling and often difficult to sit through. The atmosphere is stifling, particularly in the scenes at the decaying Falconhurst, underscored with composer Maurice Jarre's down-home ominous themes. You can almost smell the rot. This is not the antebellum South we've come to expect; there are no bright vistas with fragrant jonquils, lavish interiors, temperamental belles, or contented slaves who are treated like family members.
What's interesting—and, ultimately, most disturbing—about Mandingo is how dank and unsensationalized it all is. Fleischer's direction does not wallow in the unsavoriness; everything is presented in a matter-of-fact way. The dehumanization of the slaves is made more shocking by its offhandedness. The "n-word" was just the word that was used, by blacks and whites; a discussion of whether a slave should be blinded or merely beaten for learning to read is delivered with no more urgency than a discussion of what to have for breakfast.
The actors play their characters straight. When Mason's Papa Maxwell, for instance, scoffs at the notion that blacks have souls, it's not an over-the-top, Snidely Whiplash moment; to him and his contemporaries, this is just a truth, and it's absurd for anyone to think otherwise.
Perry King's Hammond is the central character, and it would have been easy for the young actor to have played him as a villain or a goon, but King goes the opposite way. Hammond's actions are horrible—he is self-centered, abusive, and ignorant—but King invests him with a guilelessness that makes him sympathetic even as we cringe at what the man considers honorable or commonplace. Disturbingly cruel to his wife, he is tender with Ellen—perversely, much of that tenderness comes from his assurance to her that, "I'll never sell you, you belong to me" and her acceptance of this as a fact of life.
Sykes gives a touching performance as Ellen, and she and King have a good chemistry. Their relationship develops naturally, and both characters change in some ways and in other ways, stay the same. It's sweet, subtle, and gives the film its only shred of hopefulness.
Mandingo has long been thought of as an exploitation film. Quentin Tarantino referenced it when he described Showgirls as "the biggest Hollywood attempt at pure exploitation since Mandingo." But Mandingo doesn't have that over-the-top, exhilarating badness that you expect from an exploitation film. It's repellent and engrossing, but also sad and troubling.
This isn't the typical slavery story, with nobility victorious over the evil institution; if anything, enlightenment loses to the ignorance of tradition. We react to the characters with an uncomfortable combination of revulsion and empathy, waiting for humanity to crawl out from the decay and knowing, from history, that that is just not going to happen.
I wish Tarantino had a hand in this DVD release. For its maiden voyage on DVD, Mandingo is given a pretty shabby treatment. There is nothing on this disc other than a somewhat battered print of the film. The 2.0 stereo track is acceptable, but subtitles would have helped pick up some of the dialogue that is often garbled by the Southern accents.
Surprisingly, for a film as controversial as Mandingo, there is not a single extra on this disc. Nothing. Not even a trailer. If ever a film needed context, it's this one, and there are enough people who were involved in the film who are still with us and could have contributed commentaries or interviews. Even better would have been a few words from contemporary critics and filmmakers on different sides of the fence.
I expected Mandingo to be high-camp free-for-all. It wasn't. Even with its excesses, Mandingo is far too grounded to be labeled exploitation. Serious, sobering, and surprisingly well made, Mandingo is worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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