Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Norman Wexler; based on Mandingo by Kyle Onstott
Cinematographer: Richard H. Kline
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
by Jon Cvack
Mandingo was the third film in the series hosted by my friend in the back porch of a used book store, following Joe (1970) and Bone (1972). I was assured by my friend that it was a film not to be missed; described as, "...the bastard child to Gone with the Wind", which is apt.
Mandingo takes place at the decrepit Falconhurst plantation, owned by unscrupulous Warren Maxwell (James Mason ; in one of his best and most transformative roles), who’s first introduced reviewing a band of slaves brought in for sale; examining them like cattle - forcing them to open their mouths, bend over, and do laps to test their agility. He buys the best built slave, Mede (Ken Norton), along with a few others and returns back to his house to have lunch with his friends and son, Hammond (Perry King), who pretty much runs the place.
Hammond is more accommodating to the slaves; uninterested in abusing them beyond what most were used to beneath other masters. After Mede attempts to escape, Hammond is forced to whip them, and we watch in a brutal wide as he forces a larger black man strip down, ties him up, and begins to paddle him down hard enough to bleed, but not hard enough to exert any lasting physical damage. Hammond’s cousin, Charles (Ben Masters), then stops by, scolding Hammond for going too easy on the slave. He takes the paddle himself where he unleashes a frightening series of violent corrections.
An ongoing discussion after the film was whether or not this film offensive sensationalism for white people, or provided a candid look at a terrifying moment in history; albeit through a melodramatic format. It was hearing both sides, though particularly the former, that is something to recall below. It’s difficult to write about these scenes without first highlighting this specific conflict from the viewer as it’s what makes the film so complex.
For instance, after the barn flagging, the Falconhurst women slaves prepare a young woman Ellen (Brenda Sykes) to lose her virginity to Hammond in one of the huts. The girl has no idea what to expect other than it’ll be painful. She stares forward deep in thought, counting down the moment while an adult slave - whether her mom, aunt, or no relation - rubs her down, trying her best to keep her calm. Given the previous disclaimer, it’s a scene like this that breaks down anyone who sees this as necessarily sensationalizing the performances. As popular as the film was, I have trouble believing such a larger audience had some extremely weird snuff fetish and was satisfied by the rape, violence, and murder of black Slaves (especially because the film also performed well with black audiences). If the film wanted to be insensitive, they could have had the women joke about the girl’s pending assault; or at least not care, or they could have avoided showing any of the prelude and how these characters might feel about the experience.
Instead I found myself terrified. Watching it in this day and age, you realize how little time 150 years is and what people were capable of doing to others. It’s so easy to believe that we have progressed or evolved out of it, and while improvements have been made, it’s not as though those desires or possibilities are forever vanquished from man. Evolution doesn’t work like that. We have a government that has progressed to protect more people; but it can just as easily go the other way. Throughout his term, Trump has repealed the recognition of transgender people deserving equal rights; meaning they're more vulnerable to hate crimes. White Supremacist violence is on the rise. People are getting assaulted or killed. That is a fact and demonstrates how things can regress. The question is as to how far.
Hammond and Charles then take two female slaves back to their room and divide them up; both women shaking in fear. Charles’ sadism is further on display as he strips his slave naked and beats her, vowing to violently rape her, which alarms Hammond who takes Ellen into the next room and treats her with relative respect; "allowing" her to look him in the eye and kiss him on the mouth.
Maxwell pressures Hammond to get married and decides on his wealthy cousin Blanche (Susan George; who I had previously seen in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)). Hammond remains suspicious that Blanche has already lost her virginity; with a strong hint that it had something to do with Charles (we later learn, though immediately suspect - given Chris’s violent penchant - it was sexual assault). During the honeymoon, Hammond finally pops, storms out of the room, and straight to a brothel where he later finds Mede fighting one of the other black slaves. The whole brothel clears out to watch and Mede destroys his opponent. The defeated slave owner then offers Hammond $10,000 for Mede. Hammond refuses, instead challenging him to a rematch.
The pair return to Falconhurst and Mede begins a brutal training regime, culminating in forcing him to sit in an iron cauldron of near boiling salt water in order to “toughen his skin.” When a group of slaves attempt to escape, Hammond sends Mede out to hunt them down; tackling one to the ground who begs Mede to let him go rather than do the bidding for the master. Mede struggles for a moment and the armed workers close in, he seizes the rebel slave and ties a noose around his neck while he sits on a chair, the chair tied to a truck which then drives away, leaving him to hang as dozens of slaves and hunters, including Mede, watch as the fugitive suffocates to death.
Back at the plantation, Hammond continues his affair with Ellen while ignoring Blanche who descends into severe alcoholism; kicking back hot toddies by the minute and developing a volatile temper as a result. Soon she suspects the affair between Ellen and Hammond, which Hammond denies. However, when Hammond, Maxwell, and Charles take Mede back to the city for the rematch, Blanche calls up Ellen to her room and in a drunken rage, she beats her senseless with a cane.
Back in town, Mede starts his first fight and so begins an even more brutal death scene than the hanging, as just as Mede is up against the ropes, he flips the fight around, popping out his opponent’s eyeballs and then biting off a chunk of his neck, killing him. The crowd cheers and Mede is hailed a hero. No one ever even mentions the fact that he’s also a murderer. In celebration, Hammond buys two pieces of jewelry; a necklace for Blanche and matching earrings for Ellen.
After arriving back, we learn that Ellen is pregnant with Hammond’s child. Maxwell learns the news and threatens to kill her if she tells Hammond. However, at dinner, when Ellen wears some expensive earrings Hammond bought her and after Blanche receives her far inferior present, she connects the pieces. Later, in another violent eruption spawned by learning of the pregnancy, she pushes Ellen down the stairs; causing Ellen to miscarry the child. Still, Ellen doesn’t tell Hammond what happened, either about the baby or Blanche’s abuse.
Years later, Hammond now travels on other business; leaving Blanche alone with Mede who she calls to her room, demanding he make love to her and providing a type of bizarre interracial porn without the graphic detail. Soon Blanche becomes pregnant and decides to have the baby. Their local friend and doctor delivers the child, inviting Maxwell upstairs alone where he shows him the interracial child. Maxwell orders the doctor to kill the baby and then tell Hammond there was an accident. Hammond forces his way up, discovering the dead infant, and then poisons Blanche’s toddy; killing her. He storms outside, orders the slaves to boil the cauldron of water, finds Mede, and at gunpoint, demands he jump in. Hammond then shoots him and Mede falls into the water, burning alive. Hammond then grabs a pitch fork and tries to drown him. Another slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) enters the scene with a rifle pulled, shooting Maxwell after he calls Agamemnon a “grisly nigger”, dropping the rifle, and leaving Hammond to kneel next to his dead father.
So ends the film and what began as a discussion that lasted for two hours amongst the audience and the evening’s host. The majority saw the film as a piece of racist trash, while the other saw a film that was, at the very least, demonstrating the horrors of slavery. One man brought up the fact that these movies were based a series books by Kyle Onstott who wrote them through the decades after slavery and up to the 1960s. The man said that these books were trashy melodramatic works that were most popular amongst white women. Not knowing the facts, I couldn’t argue back, but later realized the inherent assumption about the books. Although no one knew anything about the source material, per the movie, they must be trash; catering mostly to white upper class women; failing to acknowledge the fact that 1) the vast majority of readers are women any way, and 2) most emancipated slaves and their descendants were illiterate due to Jim Crow laws, and up until Onstott’s death, were second class citizens and victims of the utter failure that was Reconstructions. Again, this movie was popular amongst black audiences.
Someone else had mentioned that a prominent Marxist film critic at the time applauded the film for showing the darkest realities of capitalism. Quentin Tarantino considered the film Hollywood's first exploitation film and looked to the film when developing Django Unchaine (2012). I was left thinking of Giuseppe De Santis’s Italian Neo-Realist masterpiece Bitter Rice (1949) who combined a melodramatic story within a socialist text; demonstrating the utter horrors of rice farmers against the land owners. Santis’ philosophy was that in order to attract people to complex and progressive ideas required an accessible narrative. The mainstream would have no interest in watching a socialist text otherwise.
Mandingo suffers from the problems that films even up to the 1990s exhibited with movies such as Mississippi Burning (1988), A Time to Kill (1996), and Ghost of Mississippi (1996) in which, while exploring movies about pre-Civil Right abuses and murder, they were nonetheless focused on the white character savior.
The primary issue is that the narrative is from a white and racist man’s point of view; however complex Onstott attempted to make him. My suspicion is that Onstott might have been attempting to show the abject horror of slavery within a narrative which could lure white people; as I’m not sure how many mainstream audiences there would be for watching a film like this otherwise. Of course, "Roots" (1977) would disprove the idea only five years later, told from author Alex Haley’s point of view (whose shelf life demonstrates the efficacy in a proper point of view).
This was a wildly popular film, and I’m certain portrayed a side of slavery rarely encountered by most white audiences. To view the film as nothing more than fetish porn is to diminish what it is at least attempting to do - portray the shocking history of our country. At no point is slavery celebrated. To the very end we view the Maxwell family as despicable human beings surrounded by even more despicable human beings. The film’s popularity might be attributed to the evil people saw in themselves. In today’s world - at the time of this writing - where 11 Jewish people practicing their religion were butchered down by an anti-semite and two black people were killed by a racist in Kentucky, the hate is still there and must be tamed. Better to see it and do whatever you can to prevent regressing even an inch in that direction than be shocked when the horrors return.
BELOW: Gives Tarantino a run for his money
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