(The following is another entry in my ongoing attempt to write about all of the movies found on the SLIFR Top 100 Movies List.)
Based from Kyle Onstott’s luridly detailed but clear-eyed novel of slavery of the Old South (and a subsequent adaptation of it as a play), Mandingo (1975), directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mr. Majestyk) from a screenplay by Norman Wexler (Joe, Serpico, Saturday Night Fever) was released near the end of the popular “blaxploitation” cycle of American films, and though it was a box-office hit it was treated with the sort of critical disdain usually reserved for titles like Black Shampoo or Slaughter’s Big Rip-off. The reviews were so dismissive that by the time the movie resurfaced during the age of VHS it had developed a reputation as some sort of abomination, a camp classic, a shameful artistic disaster. I wasn’t even sure if I could rely on my own memories of the film to be accurate, shaded as they were by circumstances under which I first saw it (I was 15 years old and in the company of my paternal grandmother!) and my uncertainty as to whether those negative reviews might be right. In a piece entitled "Pleasures Worthy of Guilt”, which was the inaugural post on this blog almost four years ago, I reflected on those memories, and even though I considered it an important movie in my development as a lover of film I clearly did not trust my own reactions to it. From some reason I felt the need, writing in 2004, to ascribe to Mandingo the suspicion that it might be “morally confused” and inflicted with a kind of reverse racism, based on nothing, apparently, other than the movie’s attempt to portray whites in a manner less sanctified than that seen in the Margaret Mitchell template. But this weak notion was an unconvincing twist on more trenchant observations, still based only on memory, which got much closer to the heart of the movie’s intent:
“I saw Mandingo again in my early 30s, and I was able to appreciate the attempts by the screenwriter Norman Wexler to inject some allegorical wit into Onstott’s narrative, some threads that might lead the viewer to connect a time when American society openly dealt in the enslavement of a race of people to a period some 110 years later when much lip service was being paid to the easement of race relations with little actual progress on display. And though the actors and Richard Fleischer’s direction are little better than pedestrian (that may be a generous assessment of Norton’s acting talent), and though the movie may at heart be simply a piece of exploitation (it was certainly marketed as such), I was struck by the fact that it comes off as pointedly, and powerfully, anti-racist as it is lurid. The more permissive context of a theatrical film allows the cauldron of Mandingo’s concerns, both violent and sexual, to boil at a more confrontational temperature than decorum might otherwise allow. As a result the movie, despite the participation of Anglos Wexler and Fleischer (not to mention Onstott, whom I've always rather presumptively imagined, with no prior knowledge or available research to confirm it, was also white), is much closer to the unchecked anger of blaxploitation, particularly Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, than to the sober mainstream TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.”
I owe an apology to Ken Norton and the late Richard Fleischer. In actuality, Norton’s performance as revealed when I saw the film again early last year, on the big screen for the first time since 1975, may not be nuanced, but it is certainly creditable and imbued with wounded dignity, and far better than the one that would have likely been given by the other boxer who was offered, but turned down the role—Muhammad Ali. But Fleischer’s direction of Mandingo is far from pedestrian. Instead, it is a model of quiet efficiency, characterized by clarity and a commitment not to look away. Fleischer’s role as a journeyman director served him well here, as unconcerned as he is with drawing attention to his style, his camera, his presence. He unfolds the action in the manner of a storyteller who trusts his audience to understand what it is they are seeing, and I’m unconvinced it is his fault that for 38 years most who have seen and reflected on Mandingo have failed that simple task. (Some of the most recent user comments on IMDb are in a much more appreciative vein.)
The first images we see in Mandingo, enriched by the weary tones of Muddy Waters singing “I Was Born in This Time,” are ones of majesty defiled—a run-down plantation called Falconhurst that looks as if it is soon to be swallowed up by moss, overgrowth and sin, the rot of decadent white privilege come home to roost. Seen from a distance, the estate, its driveway worn into the dirt like rail tracks cutting through the hanging arches of the surrounding magnolias and heading toward the front steps, seems at first glance to resonate with familiar imagery, as if suggesting Tara’s moldy underbelly. But the film’s opening scene, a brutally matter-of-fact evaluation of specimens for a potential slave sale between Falconhurst’s owner, Warren Maxwell (James Mason) and a professional trader (Paul Benedict) well-versed in the examination of teeth and prodding of flesh to ensure the acquisition of prime product, prompts other thoughts. Right out of the gate Mandingo draws a comparison between this country’s corrupt system of slavery, for viewers primed to view that system over the safe distance of 150 years, and another more recent holocaust. The degraded humanity lined up for humiliation and eventual doom in front of this wretched gothic palace is meant to suggest the connection of this American tragedy to the European Semitic genocide that haunted the continent during the Nazi regime-- Falconhurst as an antebellum Auschwitz. It’s a pattern of image association reflected in the movie’s exploitatively effective ad campaign, which recasts Gone with the Wind’s lush romanticism in decidedly lurid, miscegenational terms and anticipates the movie’s own appropriation of classical Hollywood structure and style for more subversive ends. Mandingo amounts to a fissure in the smooth landscape of pop culture, through which erupted a startling moment of recognition, of accountability for past horrors that still echo through the culture at large today.
But despite the connections, Mandingo is not a Holocaust allegory—the historical horrors of its own period provide more than enough fuel for the anger that flows through its narrative, its allegorical ambitions satisfied by a modern reflection on race compelled by the ghosts of the past. There is virtually no white person in the film that could be described generously as sympathetic, which is no knock on the depth of their conception. Mason’s grizzled patriarch holds onto romanticized notions of a South already slipping into the past, inextricably coupled with grotesque notions of the inhumanity of his “stock,” the white man’s prerogative to steal the virginity of female slaves, and the treachery of the more desirable white women on whose petite shoulders Maxwell rests the future of his trade and his name. And he holds forth on the folk wisdom derived from generations of subjugation of blacks with alarming and, yes, amusing surety. His witless entitlement is the source of much of the entrenched satire in the script— the image of the aged Maxwell, his feet planted on the belly of a young boy into whom he hopes to drain his “rheumatiz,” is a powerful distillation of the enfeebled empowerment of slave-owning whites even as they maintained a position of power, one which certainly resonated in the years just beyond the crest of the Civil Rights Movement. Mason’s performance is the antithesis of the dismissive notices he received at the time—he burrows deep into this bastard and allows his charm to peek through the ugliness just enough to show you how Maxwell made his way through life. It’s a fearless turn tinged with theatrics but no less powerful for it.
Maxwell’s son Hammond (Perry King) comes off only slightly more humane. Though depicted as relatively sensitive-- he's afflicted with a gimpy leg, he falls in love with a black wench named Ellen, played with grace by Brenda Sykes, and he allows himself a mite too much respect for the Mandingo slave Mede (Norton) whom he turns into a fighter—Hammond discovers that the evil he pretends he can rise above instead courses through his veins. It's a vile legacy of privilege and suppressed hatred (mixed with fear) that finally, in a horrifying act of vengeance and in its bloody aftermath, settles on him and Falconhurst like a shroud. If King is slightly bland, that may be the price the white audience has to pay for being able to project our feelings of liberal guilt onto a character who asks for a measure of humanity even as he basks in the entitlements afforded him because of the color of his skin. It’s a strong piece of acting, and perhaps most difficult because we are asked to understand Hammond in a way that were not asked to understand Maxwell or any of the other white characters—he’s the movie’s key to the white audience accessing its own sympathy for the devil, and then being asked to consider what that sympathy means.
The movie is perhaps just as ambivalent toward the object of Hammond’s fantasies of white Southern womanhood, his cousin Blanche (Susan George), whom he takes as his wife and almost immediately rejects when he discovers that he will not be allowed the privilege of breaking in this ivory belle in the manner of his black wenches. Blanche settles into her days at Falconhurst as a promiscuous, yet wronged catalyst for brutality and betrayal in an already poisoned environment; her psychologically harrowing scenes of vicious villainy as she abuses Ellen in a jealous rage are punctuated by attempts to prop up appearances of family harmony that often play, with help from the authentic, yet familiar strains of Maurice Jarre’s moody, at times overenthusiastic score, like a grim parody of Southern hospitality. (The scenes of the Maxwell family at table, fanned by shirtless boys in a dining room bereft of light and even the most meager accoutrements of décor, are eerie in their stillness, pregnant with ready-to-erupt violence.) George’s insinuating performance is all gnashing teeth and petulant tears (followed by the ones inspired by madness), but the actress provides more than just a single note of spurned jealousy to go along with her hothouse accent-- it’s hard not to recognize how Blanche too has been dealt a heavy hand, one which she misguidedly uses to justify her own attempts at vengeance and her own hidden lust, and George shades the edges of this white-laced harpy with a surprising degree of pain.
Mandingo tempers the depiction of its tarnished white characters not with images of the kind of “happy” slaves most familiar from Hollywood depictions of the period, but with portraits of men and women quite aware of their agony and humiliation who must function within this perverted society in order to survive. Lillian Heyman’s Lucrezia Borgia is a dead ringer for Hattie McDaniel, but her every acquiescence to the increasingly ludicrous demands of her white masters (and mistress) is tempered with common sense disbelief, and she is allowed, as McDaniel never really was, a measure of respect in confronting the Maxwells with bitter truth—it is her task to reveals how Blanche has used Mede to get even for Hammond’s favoring of Ellen, and she grabs hold of it as an opportunity to assert an authority she might not ever let rise to the surface again. As Agamemnon, the “house nigger” who coordinates the passing of Bibles to a group of slaves trying to learn to read, Richard Ward has wide, brimming eyes and a guttural murmur of obedience that betray his seething anger. His ultimate act of defiance at the movie’s notorious violent climax has an emotional power worthy of Greek tragedy.
Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Cicero, the defiant runaway slave, is saddled with the movie’s most naked appeal to the sensibilities of the antiracist audience, and it is a tribute to his power as an actor and a physical presence that his plea to Mede, who has helped capture him, and his spat-out reproach to the mob of whites who have tightened the noose around his neck has not the canned quality of a screed pitched to the converted, but instead one of lived-in speech, the bitter last words of a man articulating how much he can no longer abide this life. And as I suggested before, Ken Norton, while no actor in the strictest sense, acquits himself well as Mede, the Mandingo so coveted by the Maxwells who will spur their undoing. Norton has little to do but be, yet some better actors haven’t mastered the stillness he brings to this part, which eventually deepens the dawning sense of how he’s been manipulated by the Maxwell family and makes it sting. The conception of Mede comes close at times to that classic Hollywood depiction of the misunderstood brute, less man than pet. But the moment that connects him with Cicero, when he realizes his complicity in the system that contributes to his own debasement, is heightened by Norton’s tempered indignation while at the receiving end of his master’s pitchfork; he lets forth a plea for mercy that includes a petition for the saving of Hammond’s soul as much as his own. Mandingo makes the anger of Cicero, and of Mede, resonate throughout the narrative in bursts of raw, sometimes seemingly uncontrollable fury, which is maybe part of the reason the movie was rejected by some who should have known better in 1975; the bitter pill of this movie’s text, which suggests the anger of slaves like Cicero could be still located in an post-Civil Rights Movement-era on American streets and in the wounds inflicted by recently halted Vietnam war, would soon give way to the realism mixed with assurances of triumph that was the hallmark of the unprecedented popularity of Roots.
Ji-Tu Cumbuka and Ken Norton confront a horrible truth in Mandingo
I sincerely hope that with the release of Mandingo on DVD that some revisionism regarding its status as a “so-bad-it’s-good” camp classic will begin to take place. Those IMDb comments from viewers who have seen it recently certainly seem to suggest that there a movement in this direction already underway. When I saw the movie at the American Cinematheque early last year, it was easy to sense that the audience came primed to giggle at the antiquated, period-authentic dialogue, the impolitic slurs and the debased folk mythology that makes up the worldview of Mandingo’s white characters. But it was heartening to hear that nervous giggling die down after about 15 minutes when it became clear that the movie was no corny sex-and-slavery romp, was no easy candidate for Mystery Science Theater-type derision, but instead a serious and agonized attempt to grapple with a period in American history that it seemed was still too hot to handle. Director Richard Fleischer’s unadorned, direct style is the perfect approach to this material, and the result is a movie that gets under the skin of blacks and whites, in 1975 and in 2008, and lives there, coalescing into a depiction of our country’s subconscious, as likely as any depiction of its subject ever made to claim authenticity, genuine insight into the way things must have been.
Zach Campbell, writing about Fleischer’s career in The Film Journal wrote of the film, “This is a film where white American culture lets slip an admission of its burdensome racial history. Its pulp components enable a profound violence, while its stylistic construction ensures that this transgression cannot sink into dismissible grindhouse pabulum. Simply put, Mandingo is a monstrous hybrid, and thank god for it.” And it is a monstrous hybrid that our current hyper self-conscious film culture could probably never hope to replicate. Even if it could, would we know what to do with such a film any more than we did in 1975? I’m with Zach in giving thanks for the re-emergence of Mandingo on DVD, even packaged as it is in numbingly bland cover imagery that suggests the interracial taboos of its story in a way completely drained of the original poster art’s audacity, just one more bit of evidence that the treasures of the ‘70s go deeper (and may be more difficult to unearth) than just the usual suspects. It’s my hope that one day Mandingo will take its place beside universally recognized, socially trenchant and provocative films as Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon and, yes, even The Godfather as among the best the decade had to offer.
(Mandingo is now available on DVD from Legend Films at Green Cine.com.)
UPDATE 6/11/08: Timothy Sun checks in with a long piece that is definitely in the spirit of the critical revisionism I had hoped for in my piece. His detailed appreciation of Mandingo can be found here.