Mandingo, released in 1975, is one of the most notorious of all bad movies, an outrageously lurid blaxploitation epic about slavery, a bit like a camp version of Gone with the Wind with lots of interracial sex. At least that’s how it was viewed at the time, and that’s the view of this film that largely prevails to this day. Quentin Tarantino famously described it as "a big-budget exploitation movie on a par with Showgirls."
But is this an accurate view of the movie? Is it possible that both audiences and critics
have watched this movie without actually seeing it? That the comforting assumption that it’s a so-bad-it’s-good trashy movie has allowed people to avoid confronting the awful truth, that the film-makers mean exactly what they’re saying, and that it’s intended to depict the reality of the slave-owning society in Louisiana in the 1840s. And it’s allowed them to avoid an even more unpalatable thought - that the movie may have succeeded in doing just that.
Mandingo is certainly melodramatic, but it’s melodramatic in the style of the best southern gothic. James Mason is Warren Maxwell, owner of Falconhurst. Maxwell’s plantation is essentially a breeding farm for slaves. He dreams of obtaining a pure-bred mandingo male, the very best breeding stock there is. He also dreams of having a grandson to carry on the family’s proud traditions. His son Hammond is less than keen, but is persuaded to marry his cousin Blanche. She is also breeding stock of the best kind. To console himself, Hammond buys a new bed wench for himself, an attractive female slave named Ellen.
He is not comfortable with the idea of having sex with a white lady, and he’s fairly sure white ladies don’t like having sex anyway. He’s always confined himself to sex with slaves and whores. His enthusiasm for his slave bed partners, and his odd tenderness towards them, is something that has been worrying his daddy quite a bit. Hammond is however willing to do his husbandly duty with his new wife, until his wedding night when he discovers that his new bride is no virgin! He’s had enough sex with virgins to know such things, since he always likes to be the first to break in a new breeding female. It’s a sort of family tradition. He is of course appalled that Blanche has already been “pleasured” by a man. It’s just as well she hasn’t told him that the man in question was her brother (which is possibly one of her family’s proud traditions).
Naturally he no longer wishes to have any physical contact with a woman who is no better than a whore, and he is further repulsed by Blanche’s obvious desire for sex. Blanche is left without any outlet for her appetites, until she decides that perhaps she should sample some “black meat” as well. Obviously there are troubled times ahead for Falconhurst.
While the plot does sound exceptionally lurid, the treatment of the material is absolutely straight. The movie is horrifyingly direct and honest in confronting the evils of slavery, and not just the obvious evils but the corrosive moral effect on everyone involved, victim and oppressor. In that sense it reminds me a little of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (another movie that continues to make people uncomfortable). It is unflinching in depicting the brutality of slavery, but even more so in exploring the almost unimaginable everyday degradations that are part and parcel of a society that treats humans like livestock.
It also has a good deal to say about the position of women in such a society. Blanche is eventually treated in exactly the same way a slave would be treated, although I won’t spoil the plot by telling you the details. Susan George’s frenzied performance’s as Blanche is a highlight of the movie. She’s over-the-top, but I think she’s perfectly correct to play the part that way. She knows exactly what she’s doing. James Mason takes a similar approach, and again it works. Perry King as Hammond is much more low-key. Despite the exaggerated performances none of the characters come across as mere stereotypes. There’s a humanness to them that makes them even more horrifying than a stereotype would be.
It turns out that Tarantino’s comparison of this movie to Showgirls was strangely apt, although whether Tarantino himself understood just how apt the comparison was is an open question. Both are movies that have been monumentally and willfully misunderstood. And while both appear on the surface to be exploitation movies, that’s exactly what they are not. It’s not surprising that the recent DVD release contains no extras whatsoever. An audio commentary for example might reveal the unpleasant truth that this movie is in fact in deadly earnest. Mandingo is still too confronting to be taken seriously.