Mandingo is pretty atrocious. It isn't as relentlessly appalling and horrific as Goodbye Uncle Tom, but while Jacopetti & Prosperi combined exploitation impulses with an analytic thesis designed to explain the motivations and weaknesses of contemporary black protest, Fleischer's film is simply trashier, reducing the crime and tragedy of American slavery to the stuff of soap opera, making it personal rather than political and asking us ultimately consider a master as much a victim of the system as a slave.
Our setting is the Falconhurst plantation, where Mr. Maxwell (James Mason) reigns over a clan of slaves and his own son and heir, Hammond (Perry King). Maxwell is concerned with breeding. His slave girls need a good stud to give him another generation of human chattel, while Ham has reached the age when he ought to be giving Maxwell a grandson. Ham seems happy bedding the slave women, particularly Ellen (Brenda Sykes), towards whom he feels growing compassion as well as lust. Nevertheless, he must go a-courtin' Miss Blanche (Susan George) while shopping around for a sound Mandingo male for human breeding.
Blanche proves a disappointment, not being a virgin, but Ham seems to have made a better choice in Mede (heavyweight contender Ken Norton), a mighty Mandingo for whom he outbids a randy Dutch widow. Mede is short for Ganymede, pointing toward at least one direction the movie, at least, refused to go. As a kid, seeing the original advertising but ignoring the reviews, I assumed that Norton was the title character. In any event, before Mede proves himself a lover he proves himself a lucrative fighter, earning Ham's respect in the process. After one brutal fight Mede openly questions the point of such violence. When old man Maxwell asks whether Ham will allow Mede to talk that way, Ham decides that he will.
"I don't buy a pig in ze poke!" Whether a woman would be permitted to make such a hands-on inspection of the goods for sale at a slave market (Ken Norton) is strongly debatable.
I assume Mede's bath in hot brine (the Romans supposedly toughened their fighters that way) is straight from the novel, but do you suppose Richard Fleischer recognized this reversal of the cartoon cliche of the savages cooking white folks in a pot? More power to him if he did.
While the elder Maxwell is a parody of degenerate, unenlightened backcountry aristocracy, Ham appears to approach the culture's own ideal of a benevolent, paternalist master, treating Ellen and Mede almost like human beings while his father regards them as no more than breeding stock. Ironically, it's his possessive, patriarchal attitude toward Blanche, his white wife, that embitters him toward his blacks. Blanche herself is jealous of Ellen and pitches her down a flight of stairs, inducing a miscarriage of Ham's child. To further avenge herself, she orders Mede to her bedchamber and seduces him. When she gives birth to a black baby the doctor commits infanticide and Ham poisons Blanche. He grabs a gun and goes after Mede, knocking aside Ellen's pleas for mercy and Mede's own insistence that he meant no disrespect. Ham kills the daylights out of Mede, shooting him twice, dumping him in a giant cauldron of boiling water and punching holes in the man with a pitchfork. A long-suffering slave named Mem (for Agamemnon) grabs the gun and threatens Ham, but when old man Maxwell shows up and orders the "loony black bastard" to drop the weapon, Mem shoots him instead. As Mem runs away and Ham contemplates his father's corpse, Muddy Waters reprises the film's theme song, "I was born in this time/And I'll never be free," the placement suggesting that Ham, now the master, is in his own way as unfree as his slaves in a slave society. Sure he is....
Martial arts in Mede's time were decidedly more mixed than they are today. Perhaps I should have had my friend Wendigo meet with this bit of bloodsucking.
Not that there's anything wrong with blood and sleaze, but American slavery is probably a topic that ought to be approached with more moral seriousness than Mandingo ultimately musters. The film's real problem may be that it tries. A more completely exploitative, audience-gratifying blaxploitation film, something that wrapped with a violent, victorious uprising, might be less objectionable because it could not be taken as seriously, as might be a more morally rigorous, physically reticent account of the peculiar institution. Goodbye Uncle Tom is a more successful film, even if some find it more disturbing or disgusting, because its analytical ambition, its daring time-travel gimmick and Riz Ortolani's stunning score make it a work of genuine diabolic artistry. Mandingo is too often merely tawdry.
I get the impression sometimes that "slavesploitation" is one branch of exploitation that many otherwise adventurous viewers are reluctant to explore. I suppose the reason may be that people realize that the subject matter has too much contemporary resonance to be treated lightly or crassly. Some folks probably feel the same way about the Ilsa (or Night Porter inspired Nazi prison films from the same era as Mandingo. Art ought to be able to overcome all such qualms, but I can understand people's reticence on certain issues. Nevertheless, I'm pressing on this week because I owe the Lost Video Archive a review of Drum and particular attention to blogathon honoree Yaphet Kotto's performance in it alongside such Seventies titans as Warren Oates and Pam Grier. I actually have a few other slavesploitation items from other collections to make things more interesting down the line. For now, however, I'll say that despite its many faults Mandingo is probably essential viewing for students of pop cinema from that most disturbing decade.
For some the trailer may be more than enough. robatsea2009 uploaded it to YouTube.