Mandingo (1975) -***˝
Dino De Laurentiis wasn’t from around here. Mandingo’s existence makes a lot more sense if you keep that in mind. Granted, a lot of barriers had fallen by 1975, and a lot of previously taboo territory opened to cinematic exploration. American movies had even started dealing with the festering abscess of race relations in a fairly forthright way, at mainstream, arthouse, and grindhouse levels alike. Nevertheless, there was one especially raw and rotten nerve that even the most intrepid of US film producers were skittish about touching: slavery and the Antebellum South. Hollywood in the late 60’s and early 70’s was ready enough to take on Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, the racism of the Northern white working class, and even the occasional fevered fantasy of Black Nationalist retribution, but slavery was something else again. You bring up slavery, and we’re going to have to talk about the Civil War. We’re going to have to talk about all those august Virginia gentlemen whose faces are on our money, our stamps, and our public statuary, who believed that all men were created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness— except for the men whom they and their fellows personally owned. Shit, you bring up slavery, and we’re going to have to talk about goddamned Gone with the Wind, and how pretty, put-upon Scarlet O’Hara is actually the villain of that story. Fuckin’ nobody wants that, right? Well, nobody white, anyway.
So then along came Dino, his cultural background uncontaminated by Jubal Early and his Lost Cause bullshit, whatever comparable brain-bilge he might have soaked up instead back home in Italy. De Laurentiis had no reason to know that slavery was off limits. What he did have reason to know was that Soldier Blue made a ton of money by deconstructing the shit out of the Old West, and that similarly nasty revisionist Westerns did primo box office for years thereafter. He also had reason to know that The Legend of Nigger Charley was successful enough to warrant a sequel at the height of the blaxploitation boom. So why not gamble that the ticket-buying public would turn out to see the Old South deconstructed just as savagely? The big studios were in a gambling mood, too, their leadership having emerged from the late 1960’s with the unsettling feeling that everything they thought they knew about their customer base was wrong. And De Laurentiis was riding high at that point in his career. He was the Barbarella guy, the Serpico guy, the Death Wish guy. When you look at it that way, it no longer sounds insane that Paramount, of all studios, would release a barely domesticated roughie with delusions of historical epic, based on one of the sleaziest American novels of the 1950’s. When you look at it that way, it merely sounds wildly reckless and totally ill-advised.
Looking at Falconhurst, you’d never guess that it was one of the most prosperous plantations in Louisiana. The place is a dump— its paths overgrown, its fields half fallow and returning to bayou as fast as they can, its buildings dilapidated. Even the big house looks barely fit for human habitation, with its scabby timbers, sagging verandas, and mildew-bloated plaster. The state of the land suggests that whatever farming goes on at Falconhurst suffices for little more than the subsistence of the people living there, so where on Earth does Warren Maxwell, the master of the plantation (James Mason, from A Place of One’s Own and Salem’s Lot), get all his money? That’s easy— Maxwell’s a breeder. With the triangular trade long since shut down, slaves have to come from somewhere, and men like Maxwell have done quite well for themselves supplying their neighbors’ needs. As we first drop in, old Warren is negotiating with a trader called Brownlee (Paul Benedict, of The Devil’s Advocate and The Man with Two Brains) about selling some of his “bucks” down in New Orleans. There’s one in particular whom he’d like to get rid of, an inveterate troublemaker by the name of Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka, from Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde and Blacula). Brownlee reckons that Cicero’s track record won’t be too much of a problem at auction. He’s strong, quick, and clever, and some planters enjoy the sport of breaking rebellious slaves.
The biggest inconvenience Cicero poses to his master is his effectiveness at getting the other slaves riled up, and at putting ideas in their heads that Maxwell would prefer they not have. Cicero preaches the Gospel. He makes rousing speeches about the rights of man and the liberties that blacks enjoy back in Africa. Worst of all, he teaches his fellow slaves to read and write! He’s at it even on the eve of his forced departure for New Orleans, when Warren’s son, Hammond (Perry King, from Class of 1984 and The Killing Hour), catches him instructing the Maxwells’ butler, Agamemnon (Across 110th Street’s Richard Ward), in the rudiments of literacy. Warren wants to gouge out one of Agamemnon’s eyes when he learns about that (just one, mind you— elsewise how’s Mem supposed to do his job anymore?), but Hammond talks him down to just having the butler paddled after his morning rounds the next day.
As you might infer from that, Hammond is what passes for a compassionate master in these parts. Some of the Falconhurst slaves, like old Lucrezia Borgia the housekeeper (Lillian Hayman) and his pet, Aphrodite (Debbi Morgan, from The Monkey Hustle), he downright likes. And when it falls to him to give newly matured girls like Big Pearl (Reda Wyatt) their first laying, he’s always as gentle and considerate about it as he knows how. He knows some slave women get attached to their babies almost like they were real people, and he generally tries to stop his dad from selling the kids ‘til they’re grown when that happens. Why, Hammond’s even careful to give the slave whose job it is to administer Agamemnon’s punishment direction on how to do it without risk of permanent injury. A veritable prince among peckerwoods, this guy.
One point of friction between Hammond and his old man is the lad’s persistent bachelorhood. Like all patriarchs, Warren wants heirs to perpetuate his legacy, but Hammond is insecure and frankly a little frightened around any woman who doesn’t call him master. Partly it’s his gimp leg, a souvenir of a riding accident he had as a small child, but mainly it’s because there are no white women for him to socialize with, since Falconhurst sits way back in the middle of a swamp where no right-thinking lady would ever want to set foot. That’s why Warren leans on him so hard to marry his cousin, Blanche Woodford (Susan George, from The Sorcerers and Tintorera). Hammond’s at least met that girl, and any fool can see that she’s so itchy to get away from her own family that she’d be willing to move even to a place like Falconhurst. A new opportunity for such leaning arises when Blanche’s brother, Charles (Dream Lover’s Ben Masters), comes to visit, and to solicit a sizable loan from Maxwell on behalf of his father (Obsession’s Stanley J. Reyes). Warren figures he’ll let Hammond decide whether Major Woodford gets his loan based on what the kid thinks of Blanche when he accompanies Charles back home.
In fact, the Woodford plantation is just one stop on what turns into a fateful whirlwind tour of the southern part of the state. First comes the home of yet a third planter by the name of Wallace (Ray Spruell), who owns a slave that Warren wants to breed with Big Pearl. You see, Big Pearl isn’t just pretty, healthy, and strong. She’s also a full-blooded Mandingo, and Maxwell wants to make sure at least some of her offspring are too. Wallace’s Xerxes is also 100% Mandingo— or at any rate he was. Unfortunately, Xerxes got gored to death by a bull since the last time Wallace and Maxwell spoke, so Warren will just have to look elsewhere for Pearl’s stud. (I’m sure some of you are curious about this Mandingo business; I certainly was. The Mandingo, or Mandinka, are one of the major ethnic groups of West Africa, ranging from Senegal and Gambia in the west to Nigeria in the east, and from the right-angle bend of the coastline in the south to the edge of the Sahara in the north. They’re descended from the people of Menden, the empire that encompassed most of modern Mali and Mauretania from the 13th century through the 16th. Their territory was among the hardest-hit by the European colonial slave trade, and most black Americans are consequently at least part Mandingo. What isn’t clear is why any of that would matter to Warren Maxwell. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Kyle Onstott, the author of Mandingo’s source novel, was a dog breeder before he turned to writing. Perhaps Onstott simply extrapolated the logic of his own profession into that of the Maxwells.) The visit to Wallace is a major plot development just the same, because while Hammond is there, he’s lent a gorgeous young slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes, of Black Gunn and Cleopatra Jones) for his entertainment, and the pair fall in love over the course of his stay. Wallace is amenable to selling Ellen to Hammond on his way out the door, but you can just tell the girl is destined to throw a spike into Maxwell the Elder’s wedding plans.
Hammond and Blanche do indeed get married, although it’s touch and go for a while there. You see, Charles overheard the two Maxwells talking, and thus knows that his sister is basically being used as collateral for the Major’s loan. It understandably puts Blanche in a sour mood when he tells her as much, but not enough to make her snub a ticket out of the Woodford household. Probably that time she and Charles had sex back when she was thirteen has a little bit to do with that. The trouble is, Hammond has deflowered enough slave girls in his time to know well how it feels to fuck a virgin, and he realizes that something is amiss as soon as their wedding night reaches its endgame. Blanche understandably denies having any prior experience, but to no avail. Hammond is therefore in quite a snit when meets up with Brownlee in New Orleans. His spirits are lifted somewhat by winning a bidding war for a pedigreed Mandingo youth named Ganymede (Ken Norton), but they sink again at the whorehouse run by Madam Caroline (Simone McQueen). Fortunately he doesn’t have long to sulk before an interesting development in the garden brings him back around. While waiting for his new master to finish moping around inside, Ganymede gets into a donnybrook with Madam Caroline’s valet (Earl Maynard, from The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Big Brawl), attracting so much attention that a Frenchman named De Veve (Louis Turenne, of Hellraiser: Bloodline and Prettykill) offers $1000 to the owner of the victorious slave; naturally there’s a bunch of side-betting, too. Mede pummels his opponent, and Hammond goes home not only with a coveted male Mandingo and an extra grand in his pocket, but also with a date to bring Mede back to New Orleans in three months to fight De Veve’s champion slave, Topaz (Duane Allen), in a more formal context.
That’s about as happy a moment as Mandingo has to offer, folks. From here on out, it’s one long slide down the greased chute to Hell for everybody. Hammond never forgives Blanche for the breach of chastity that he’s sure she committed, but that he can’t prove. He seeks comfort in the arms of Ellen, winning her Blanche’s eternal enmity. Cicero returns long enough to get lynched for leading a slave revolt, and Mede enjoys the dubious honor of catching him. Ganymede gets a fellow slave’s blood on his hands more directly, too, when the match against Topaz turns out to be a fight to the death. The Blanche-Hammond wars heat up further when Ellen and Blanche both get pregnant— Ellen by Hammond and Blanche by Mede. And in the end, there’s a big round of infanticide, poisoning, shooting, stabbing, and boiling alive which leaves almost everyone in the big house at Falconhurst dead, a murderer, or both.
Quentin Tarantino is absolutely right about Mandingo. It really is one of the few gloves-off examples of a big-budget, big-studio exploitation movie, scummy enough for 42nd Street, but made for the Ziegfeld. It’s also one of the few films of its price range and pedigree in which quality in the generally understood sense is largely irrelevant. Don’t look here for discreet cutaways, genteel euphemisms, or solicitous attitudes toward those in the audience with delicate constitutions. Mandingo is here to shock, every bit as much as any Mondo documentary, and by many of the same tactics. In fact, the only other movie out there at the time that was even slightly comparable in terms of impact and approach was Jacopetti and Prosperi’s Goodbye Uncle Tom. Like that infamous film, Mandingo is more interested in parading atrocities, indignities, and immoralities before the camera than in telling a conventional story, so that it’s often a challenge to tell what’s a plot thread and what’s a piece of gratuitous viciousness.
The cast behave as if they’re about evenly divided on whether they’re making an important social statement or whether they’re making the most demeaning alimony payment ever. I especially love James Mason’s performance. The shame just rolls off of him in waves, and he seems to be hoping that if he can just suck enough, then someone will have to fire him and he’ll finally be out of this misery. The black players have a tough job, in that all but a couple of them are situated in the queasy gray area of portraying people who knowingly live down to other folks’ negative stereotypes as a survival strategy. Fortunately, writer Norman Wexler and director Richard Fleischer give most of them a chance to demonstrate that their characters aren’t as dumb as they act when the honkies are around. My favorite example of the latter— and frankly, the thespian highlight of the film— is the little pair of twins (Durwyn and Kerwin Robinson) whose bellies Warren uses as a footrest on the advice of his quack doctor (A Stranger Is Watching’s Roy Poole); the idea is that doing so will draw the rheumatism out of Maxwell’s body and into the boys’. The kids plainly regard the whole thing as a silly lark that gets them out of having to do harder work, and recognize that the master’s given them carte blanche to put one over on him.
Another thing Fleischer brings to Mandingo is an unexpectedly thoughtful emphasis on visual communication. In the closest approach Mandingo ever makes to being a good movie, Fleischer takes pains to show us things that are beyond the perception of the central characters. The images onscreen underscore at every turn the wretchedness not merely of the slaves’ lives, but of their owners’ lives as well. Just look at Falconhurst, or at Madame Caroline’s place, or at the market complex in New Orleans. For all that they’re on top of the heap, the white folks aren’t much better served by this system than the enslaved blacks. At the end of the day, they’re ignorant, sickly, and living in squalor, and the majority of them really are the unfeeling, demoralized beasts that they assume their slaves to be.
And that brings me to Hammond Maxwell. The first time I saw Hammond in action, I thought, “Okay. Here comes the ‘good’ Southerner, so that we honkies in the audience can have someone we can safely identify with.” That’s not actually why he’s here, though. To Wexler and Fleischer’s credit, this is at no point and in no sense the story of Hammond’s enlightenment and redemption. Mandingo ends with his moral sensibilities as stunted and undeveloped as they were in the beginning, and if anything, his greater capacity for empathy toward his slaves makes him worse than his father, his wife, or his cousin. Unlike them, Hammond understands at some level that blacks are human beings and not insensate brutes. Warren and Blanche can attempt to excuse their evil by pleading ignorance of its magnitude, but Hammond knows exactly what he’s doing. This is another point on which Mandingo behaves like a much better film than it is. By refusing to give either the characters or the audience an easy out, it demonstrates the courage of convictions it doesn’t initially seem to have, and offers up a bit of intelligent thought to go with the knuckle-dragging ugliness.
With this review, I join my fellow B-Masters in celebrating producer Dino De Laurentiis, the schlock-movie titan who married the slapdash, try-anything audacity of the Italian cinema industry to the megalomania of Hollywood. Click the link below to read my colleagues’ thoughts on the subject.