Friday, November 6, 2015

Off the Shelf: Mandingo (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
Before Django Unchained...before Drum...there was Mandingo!

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.
Set in the Civil War South, the movie stars Perry King as Hammond, the son of wealthy plantation owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason). Hammond visits a brothel and has sex with a black woman (Brenda Sykes), but pressure to marry leads him to Blanche (Susan George), who misleads him into believing she is a virgin. He quickly figures out that she isn't and returns to the arms of Sykes, who he purchases and with whom he eventually falls in love. She gets pregnant with Hammond's baby and a jealous Blanche gets back at her husband by sleeping with Mede (football player boxer Ken Norton), the slave who has won a great deal of money for Hammond by participating in "mandingo fights" in which two slaves fight to the death. Then more bad things happen.

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.
That's what really makes Mandingo such trash: it has no interest in actually exposing any evils of slavery (even though most if not all of the white characters are presented as fools or monsters). With the exception of the "mandingo" fight at the film's center -- which, in fairness, is brutal and hard to watch -- the movie is almost singularly obsessed only with pushing buttons of sexual taboos. Even the poster art, showing two mixed-race couples in simultaneous embraces, tells us as much. I'd like to think that it's the marketing department having fun riffing on Gone With the Wind, but that might be giving Mandingo too much credit. It seems like most of the parties involved just wanted to be shocking.

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.
Previously available on Blu-ray from Legend Films, Mandingo is being reissued in high def from Olive Films, who have been doing good work with blaxploitation movies this year. While no extras are included on the disc, the transfer is solid. Pick it up to watch next #Junesploitation.

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
127 minutes/1975/R
1.78:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

Buy Mandingo from Olive Films here


  1. Good review. Just one correction. This Ken Norton was the three-time heavyweight boxing champion. His son, Ken Norton, Jr., was the professional football player (Cowboys and 49ers).

  2. I could never say I'm a fan of this kind of thing, but I will say I'm fascinated by it. This is one of those movies that I dread watching, but it's on my list to see before I die because I'm just so intrigued by the motivation for making it. Based on your review, I'm still not sure what that was, other than just trying to fill seats based on shock value. Besides, how many movies see slavery through the eyes of the slave holders, without trying to sugar coat the cold emotionless nature of it? I'll probably see it, but I'll probably hate it.