Mandingo

This is gonna be an awkward conversation starter, but, uh… anybody here seen MANDINGO? It’s a deeply uncomfortable, ugly movie, not just in showing horrible things, but in making us follow main characters who don’t see anything wrong here. Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MR. MAJESTYK, CONAN THE DESTROYER) and written by mentally ill two-time Academy Award nominee Norman Wexler, it was maybe intended as a prestige picture but received as trash and exploitation. I don’t care which it is but I do think it’s pretty brilliant, even STARSHIP TROOPERSy, in the way it confronts racism, so I thought it would be worth discussing before DJANGO UNCHAINED comes out.

The reason it was controversial is it’s a period drama, and the period is the slavery era. So all kinds of degrading treatment and talk is on screen, and the white actors get to dress up fancy while the black actors bring them food or hang upside down naked. That makes it hard to stomach, but what is the alternative? To not make any movies depicting this 400 year period of our history, because it was horrible? That seems awfully convenient for us white people. “You know what, let’s forget slavery ever happened. It’s too degrading.” Plus, the movie deals heavily with white people making their slaves have sex with them, which was a major part of the advertising campaign. I think the main buttons it pushed back then were lingering prejudice against inter-racial relationships, white fears about penis size and just old fashioned sexual prudishness, because there are butts and boobs involved. But you don’t need all that for it to be upsetting because of the whole rape part of it. I gotta say, I do not agree with the decision to promote this as a steamy sex movie.

It’s the story of a rich white (duh) family on a plantation called Falconhurst (I really thought they said Falcon Crest, which made me want to rethink that old TV show). The crotchety dad (James Mason) is on his way out and his handsome son Hammond (Perry King from CLASS OF 1984) wants to run the place his own way. I think he thinks he’s a little enlightened and sensitive because he finds out his cousin whips the slave that he makes have sex with him. He thinks that’s sick, he tries to be gentle with his “wench,” even tells her to look him in the eye. And he sweet talks her with sincere promises like “I won’t sell you.”

It’s all about hypocrisy. He thinks he’s a nice white man, but doesn’t bat an eye at the horrible shit around him: little boys fanning the family and guests off while they eat, dad sleeping and sitting with a little boy pressed against his feet to cure his rheumatism. In fact, not to cure it, to transfer it into the kid! He also tends to blow his top ranting about abolitionists – I mean, who the hell is he gonna keep his feet on if those guys have their way? I don’t know if this comes from the play and book it’s based on or from the crazy screenwriter, but they do a good job of not just showing you the standard slavery imagery, going further into the sicko details so it will hit you in the balls. Guys checking asses for hemhorrhoids, selling slaves at the same place they sell mules, boiling a slave in brine to toughen him up for fights.

That’s Mede (WBC heavyweight champion boxer Ken Norton, a couple years after breaking Ali’s jaw), and when Hammond buys him he has to outbid a German lady who casually reaches into Mede’s pants to check his dick size. And he just stands there like it’s normal. Hammond gets him though, and he’s so proud, like he bought a sports car or something. Or maybe like a show horse or something because he carries “the papers” around in his shirt pocket to show off that Mede is “pure.”

This poster artist definitely saw the GONE WITH THE WIND connection.

The diabolical genius of the movie is how clueless Hammond is about being despicable. He thinks he’s the hero in a romance and the movie plays along. He marries his cousin (Susan George), then when he thinks she’s not a virgin he completely loses interest in her and treats her like shit. At the same time he has no idea why she’s mad about him spending time with his “wench” Ellen (Brenda Sykes, wife of Gil-Scott Heron and co-star of CLEOPATRA JONES). When his wife does the exact same thing with Mede to get back at him he thinks both of them have wronged him and must be killed.

In a sense this plays like a parody of GONE WITH THE WIND or SONG OF THE SOUTH. I know those both take place after slavery, but they have this romanticized view of the people responsible for it and the former slaves who still work for their families. MANDINGO puts the lie to the notion of the not-that-bad slave owner.

There’s a subplot about putting Mede in organized fights against other slaves. They’ve got these poor guys savagely beating the hell out of each other, all for the benefit of their owners. You can’t help but notice a parallel with a boxer-trainer or boxer-promoter relationship, and it seems to be somewhat of a commentary on this. But the unspoken abuses there pale compared to the ones in his relationships with his female slaves.

To me, the bit of cluelessness that is most classic Hammond is when one of his slaves, Pearl (Reda Wyatt), gives birth to Mede’s baby (or “sucker” as they always call them in this movie) and he acts like it’s his big day. He excitedly takes the baby from the mother and runs away, glowing about his achievement. Pure Mandingo, too, good for fighting! I’m not sure most people would even do that to a dog that just had puppies.

He’s equally heartless when he gets Ellen pregnant with his own baby. He gets enraged when she tries to convince him to let the child be free. But when he calms down he sweetly says, “All right. If it means that much to you.” Just agreeing to it to be nice to her.

His wife Blanche at times seems like a victim in this, but when she finds out about Ellen she beats her and throws her down some stairs so the baby is miscarried. Don’t worry, Romeo is on the case: “It don’t matter,” he says reassuringly. I think he believes that Ellen is upset because she’s worried about his disappointment, and that everything will be okay if he just tells her he doesn’t care about the dead baby.

After all this it’s frustrating that (SPOILER) the slaves don’t get their revenge. I really thought they would. Mede is a bad ass fighter, and the title refers to his heritage, and he even has a learning experience when the defiant slave Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) tries to escape. Mede catches the fugitive for his master, then thinks better of it and lets him go, but it’s too late, he delayed him too long to get away. Cicero shames Mede for it as they hang him. Also he calls them peckerwoods and tells them to kiss his ass after he’s dead.

I hoped Mede was destined to learn from this and take on the role of a new and more successful Cicero, but… not really. This is Extreme White People’s Problems. It pretends that it’s about the petty bullshit in this family’s lives, when clearly it’s really about the horrors their lifestyle is causing. And they never even notice, never see Mede’s humanity at all. They’re too self-absorbed.

The lesson is, being acceptable to society doesn’t necessarily equal being right. Today, it’s hard to imagine we could commit any crimes as heinous as slavery, but that doesn’t mean we’re innocent. We oughta be real sure that we’re as nice as we think we are, and real careful about who we put our feet on.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 at 12:24 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Mandingo”

  1. I’ve heard a lot about MANDINGO over the years, but I’ve never felt the need to see it. Slavery, be it the old fashioned way depicted in this movie or the more modern variant where people work 16 hour shifts in some sweat shop in the slum, is something we have to figth to get rid of, not make entertainment out of.

  2. Well fuck pegsman, if nobody made movies about horrible things for entertainment purposes we’d lose three or four entire genres overnight. I don’t remember you taking a stance against TAKEN because it was about sex-trafficking.

  3. Man, I watched this a year or two ago, and the horrible thing that’s stuck with me most is when James Mason goes to bed with his feet on that kid, the kid is smiling so happily seemingly (to me) because he gets to sleep in a way more comfortable bed and has no idea what the context is.

  4. When I saw MANDINGO I dismissed it an a cheesy exploitation film that mined a historical tragedy for violence and sexytimes, like SALON KITTY or it’s legions of imitators. I didn’t really consider the satirical edge to it. This review kind of makes me want to see it again. And that first poster is amazing! Looks like a GONE WITH THE WIND style period drama until you scan down and see that poor kid. It’s not the most subtle metaphor, but man is it effective.

    Of course if you doubt the artistic merits of MANDINGO you should check out MANDINGA, the Italian rip-off that came out the next year, proving once again that there’s nothing the US could do that the Italians couldn’t do cheaper, crasser and with more boobs.

  5. Joshua – another part like that that I couldn’t believe is when the same kid sees Agamemnon (I think that’s his name) hanging upside down to be whipped and he innocently says “You look funny up there!” and scurries off. So creepy and uncomfortable and horrible.

  6. I love this movie. One of those films that could only be made in the 70s. I’d agree with the STARSHIP TROOPERS comparison, though I tend to think of it as more like SHOWGIRLS in terms of how people often ignore the satirical nature of the film and look down on it because of the sex and exploitation elements.

    DRUM is definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed this one. It’s got a top notch cast, including Ken Norton, Warren Oates, Yaphet Kotto, Pam Grier and Cheryl Smith. Oates is especially great. I’m hoping DiCaprio’s performance in DJANGO UNCHAINED is as enjoyable.

  7. I’m reading Mark Ames’ ‘Going Postal’, where he tries to equate modern workplace shootings to slave rebellions, and he talks about how few slaves actually rebelled. It’s pretty disturbing

  8. Brimstone: Man, I really hope that comparison is less wrongheaded and tasteless in context.

  9. Thought I’d link to this since I won’t be able to discuss DJANGO UNCHAINED immediately due to UK release date being later:
    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/314ad1c060/the-sad-off-with-samuel-l-jackson-and-anne-hathaway?playlist=featured_videos
    “Everyone in my movie has job security-because they’re slaves!”

  10. That last paragraph almost reads as a caution to Quentin Tarantino, and I like it. I want to think he’s too self-aware to make an unwittingly offensive movie, but then again, sensitivity to black America has always kind of been a giant blind spot for the guy.

  11. Okay. Now I feel like I need to see this. I hadn’t realized it was a depressing satire.

  12. Vern: “this plays like a parody of GONE WITH THE WIND or SONG OF THE SOUTH. I know those both take place after slavery…”

    Gone With The Wind covers the period before and after the Civil War. Blacks are slaves at the start of the movie, Atlanta burns, then the slaves are free. Maybe you’re thinking of the late scene where Scarlet is shown working black prisoners like slaves after the war. Not only does this show what an evil person she is, but the period detail is consistent with the Black Codes many ex-Confederate states passed after the end of the war, but before Reconstruction.

    You’re right about Song of the South, though. It’s not what I expected, but Wikipedia has ten footnotes supporting the movie being set in the Reconstruction era.

  13. Relax, Mode7, I’m not that sensitive. What I meant to say, in my usual inept way, was that I don’t like movies about slavery. They’re always crap.

    As for TAKEN, that was a satire about how the United States of America views and treats the world, wasn’t it?

  14. I like this review. Thank you.

  15. “[P]roving once again that there’s nothing the US could do that the Italians couldn’t do cheaper, crasser and with more boobs.”

    Does this mean that the Berlusconi administration was just an Italian sequel to the Bill Clinton administration.

  16. At the risk of being offensive, does anyone else see a musclebound Donald Glover when they look at that thumbnail?

  17. I remember QT comparing this movie to SHOWGIRLS as admiring them for being big budget, shameless exploitation trash.

  18. The Original... Paul

    December 21st, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Is it a paradox to say that I don’t know if I would ever watch this movie, but from Vern’s review I’m kinda glad that it exists?

  19. When that movie came to the Cinemas, i was to young to watch it. But i got myself a signed Autograph from
    Mr. Ken Norton. It was in a Cologne Sports Store. He stood there with a big, baldy Bodyguard and first i was a little
    afraid to ask.
    But till this day , i never saw Mandingo. Dont know why.

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