Dir: Richard Fleischer, 1975
This review is of the full length, uncut version
Realistic portrayal of a life in slavery, or simple exploitation?
Based on the 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott, Mandingo stars boxer turned actor Ken Norton as Mede, a black slave bought by Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) to work at Falconhurst, a plantation.
Hammond lives at the plantation with his father, Warren (James Mason) and drunken, jealous wife, Blanche (Susan George).
Hammond enters Mede into barbaric fight to the deai bouts against other slaves, to earn money.
However, Blanche is incensed by her husband’s love for the black slave, Ellen, and orders Mede to have sex with her, producing a child, which Blanche then blames on Mede raping her.
Having never read the book, I can’t attest to the book’s intentions but the film sits firmly on the side of exploitation, albeit, unintentionally.
There is no doubt that life as a slave was unbearably hard, and it’s so ecstatic to know that those days are gone. With daily beatings, rapes and morsels of food for a dinner, slavery scriptatrocity that no number of years can ever make up for.
Director Fleischer, attempts to portray the difficulties of being a slave with an aim to evoke anger and sadness, but merely comes across as wallowing in the pain and misery that black people were subjected to.
However, despite being a respected and skilled director, at times Fleischer seems to have very little interest in the film and several sequences are poorly shot and choreographed.
It’s incredibly difficult to see Mandingo as anything more the exploitation with the constant excuse to show nudity. Whether it’s Perry Kong’s nob, Susan George’s boobs or the naked flesh of any of the female slaves, Fleischer revels in getting as much skin on the screen as he can.
Whether “mandingo” fights actually happened, is open to debate. Quentin Tarantino used the myth as an anchor for his, excellent, film Django Unchained.
The violence in that movie was clearly borrowed from this as Mandingo is incredibly violent and offers the spectators a chance to relish in the blood letting and multitude of whipping, floggings and paddlings.
A major setback the film has, is its lack of clear-cut definition of morality. We are supposed to empathise with the slaves and their plight but Richard Fleischer insists on lingering on the mistreatment that slaves had to endure.
On the one hand, it’s blatantly obvious that we are on the side of the slaves but we are, also, enticed to take delight in the torture and inhumanity that is frequently fished out.
I’m not saying that Fleischer was a racist or had any racist sympathies, and I certainly don’t believe for one second that his intention was to make a prejudiced movie, but, unfortunately, his message has been mis-translated. The book didn’t, successfully, adapt to the cinema.
But, in Fleischer’s defence, the subject is very tough to convey. A film of this nature, will always be a tightrope walk for any director. Abuse was doled out systematically, and to not show this would be a great disservice to victims of slavery. By doing so, you, then, run the risk of glamourising the atrocities. To be fair, it’s a no-win situation.
Ken Norton is brilliant as Mede. Both tough and sensitive, he elicits the raw emotions that we are supposed to feel. Shamefully, Norton didn’t make as much of an impact at the cinema as he should have. Aside from starring in the spin-off to this film, Drum, his career in front of the lens stalled, somewhat.
Celebrated actor, James Mason, appears but there seems very little effort in his performance. After working with the awesomeness that is Stanley Kubrick, Mason emits a feeling of “I’m only doing this for the money”. Once you’ve worked with Kubrick, then there’s only way to go.
Perry King has never been a strong presence in film. Offered parts, purely, for his good looks, King has never had the ability to carry a film.
But, Susan George is in a league of her own. Awful from start to finish. An ear grating, Southern drawl, George overacts to such a degree, that you would think she believes she’s in a Morecambe and Wise sketch. Terrible in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, you come to the conclusion that she only gets parts because she isn’t afraid to get naked or, at the very least, get her norks out.
Frequently, the film has been criticised for being racist. This is not a fair evaluation of Mandingo. It’s certainly insensitive with its stereotyping, and Norman Wexler’s script seems as though very little thought was put in to it, but there’s no hatred for black people or a championing of White supremacy.
Controversial in its release, the film was shorn of around five minutes for its release in Europe. Alternate takes was used, hiding nudity and masking scenes of violence and flogging.
An addition to the self-imposed removal of footage, the film was also a victim of censorship, with Britain joining in the fun. To accommodate the film within its ‘X’ certificate, graphic violence was cut as was the beatings. The 1987 video was released with only 47 secs cut to the beatings.
Misguided and miscast, Mandingo has its faults but is still quite an enjoyable melodramatic romp through, what is, a very dark time in history.