Based on the 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott and subsequent stage adaptation, the 1975 film Mandingo is a fascinating anomaly in studio filmmaking. It's a trash exploitation movie with the budget, cast and gloss of an A-list historical drama. At the time of its release, it was viewed through the latter lens -- audiences went in expecting a serious drama about slavery and got this button-pushing trash, leading to savage reviews (Roger Ebert famously gave the movie zero stars) but decent box office, with audiences no doubt wanting to see for themselves what all the controversy was about.
Watching the movie in 2015, though, it's much easier to contextualize it as an exploitation movie despite the presence of James Mason and the Paramount logo that opens the film. Like a lot of exploitation movies, it feels racist and misogynist and ugly and it is all those things, but it's also about those things so we can cut it some slack.
What's especially gross about Mandingo is that it treats its black characters as just props to satisfy the sexual curiosity of the whites or tools of revenge against one another. This may all be historically accurate; obviously, it's no more horrible than the crimes actually taking place during the Civil War, but the film (and novel before it, unread by me) had the opportunity to at least see this experience through the lens of its black characters. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on the white people and their trysts -- a sleazy soap opera of slavery.
The good news is that what was shocking in 1975 isn't anymore, at least not in the way it was once intended. Most of the country is no longer rocked at the sight of a black man having sex with a white woman (presented here almost as kink). What's shocking about Mandingo now is just how lurid and almost insensitive it seems, because in 2015 hardly anyone would dare make a movie set during slavery and not treat it with solemnity and horror. Mandingo's total disregard for good taste is what makes it an exploitation picture.
Mandingo was a big enough hit to warrant a sequel, Drum, a few years later. Ken Norton stars again as a completely different character, with Warren Oates taking over as an older version of Perry King's character. Drum is even sleazier and crazier than Mandingo, dispensing of any sense of "class" and going full-on exploitation. I actually like that one better for that reason. For its status as a hybrid of historical costume drama and dirty, politically incorrect sleaze, Mandingo is still well worth checking out for fans of this kind of thing. You know who you are.
Release date: October 27, 2015
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Buy Mandingo from Olive Films here