| December 4, 2015

In the canon of 70s exploitation cinema, there may be no category of films more uncomfortable to watch for modern viewers than “slavesploitation.” Hardly anyone in the audience at a 2015 Fantastic Fest screening of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s notorious “mondo” slavery film Farewell Uncle Tom had seen it before, which was shocking in a room full of hundreds of die-hard cult and exploitation film fans. However, there is at least one of these films which many cinephiles will likely at least know by name: Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo. Produced by the Dino De Laurentiis Company and released by Paramount Pictures in 1975, Mandingo is slavesploitation done Hollywood style. It was typical of the big studios to attempt to capitalize on popular trends in independent cinema in the 60s and 70s, such as Fox hiring Russ Meyer for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls after his streak of independently produced and distributed hit sexploitation films. Hollywood had already been making money in Blaxploitation, but even in such a climate Mandingo must have seemed like a risky proposition. A few years earlier audiences had lined up to see Shaft kicking ass, but this was an overheated melodrama based on a best-selling novel from the 1950s that focused mainly on the white owners of a plantation in decline. The film was a big enough hit to spawn a sequel, and has proven to be influential for better or for worse. This makes Mandingo an important film in exploitation film history, but how does it hold up as a film in its own right?

Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) lives on the decaying plantation of Falconhurst with his father Warren (James Mason) and their slaves. Hammond has fathered a number of “suckers” with some of the young slave girls (or “bed wenches”), but Warren is thinking it’s about time for Hammond to marry a white woman and produce an heir to Falconhurst. When one of Hammond’s cousins comes to visit and ask Warren for a loan to help out his plantation, Warren senses an opportunity. He sends Hammond to negotiate the loan and meet with his cousin Blanche (Susan George) to see if she will marry him. During the trip Hammond stops at a slave auction where he purchases Ganymede (Ken Norton). He’s excited to bring home both a bride and a “Mandingo,” a strong male slave who can fight for sport. “Mede” quickly proves his worth in an impromptu fight with another slave while Hammond is visiting a brothel, but Hammond is enraged when he discovers Blanche is not a virgin. They return to Falconhurst to Warren’s delight in his new “Mandingo” stud and daughter-in-law, but Hammond ignores Blanche in favor of slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes). Blanche descends into alcoholism as Hammond completely neglects her, constantly training Mede for a big fight during the day and sleeping in his room with Ellen at night. Tensions mount and Blanche makes a decision that could tear Falconhurst apart.

There are a many things that set Mandingo apart from more overly lurid contemporary exploitation fare like Russ Meyer’s Black Snake, but the most immediately obvious is probably the cast. As the patriarchs of the crumbling ruin of Falconhurst, Perry King and James Mason are great. King is particularly noteworthy, giving the character of Hammond an uneasily sympathetic humanity between bouts of cruelty and pointless rage. Mason, on the other hand, mostly plays Warren as a straightforward villain, a bitter old racist desperate to keep the Maxwell bloodline going. Susan George unfortunately/typically isn’t given much to do but shriek and cry, but there’s no denying she’s great at it. Ken Norton ably plays Mede, but like George he isn’t given much to do but brawl and look good without a shirt. The slaves, who initially appear as uniformly subservient and loyal to their hateful masters, become more complex as more time is spent with them. These actors are uniformly excellent, giving the film many of its most memorable characterizations. The best of these supporting characters are Richard Ward as Agamemnon, an old Falconhurst slave who secretly learns to read in defiance of the Maxwells, and Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Cicero, the “troublemaker” and runaway who teaches other slaves to read and insists that the white men know what they’re doing is wrong.

But despite its strong cast, lavish production design, and Hollywood pedigree (director Fleischer co-directed Tora! Tora! Tora! with Kinji Fukusaku among many other high-profile films), the fact remains that Mandingo is a film that exploits the darkest time in America’s history for entertainment. This is going to automatically earn the film a dismissal from many viewers, regardless of the quality of the filmmaking, acting, etc. That’s certainly a valid response, but while one can argue endlessly about whether fiction films about slavery are inherently racist, there is no denying the huge influence the success of Mandingo has had on popular American culture. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained borrows heavily from the film, and in turn that film’s popularity was probably a deciding factor in Mandingo getting a new transfer and Blu-ray release. Unfortunately, the new Olive Films Blu-ray and DVD release is completely bare-bones. The transfer looks fantastic, but there’s nothing else on the disc at all. This is seriously disappointing, since Mandingo is the kind of film that begs for special features to help explain the context in which it was produced and released and what kind of subsequent impact it has had on pop culture. For anyone who has heard or read about the film and has never seen it before, this release gives them a chance to see it in the best audiovisual presentation it has had on home video in the States, which is commendable. But anyone who wants to know more about how and why Mandingo came to be will have to do all that work on their own.

Olive Films released Mandingo on Blu-ray and DVD on 27 October 2015.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:
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