Review by Timothy Sun
Posted on 11 June 2008
Source 35mm print
The essential question when viewing a film like Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo is “Is this nothing but an exploitation film?” Buried in the United States since its initial release in 1975 (when it did surprisingly well at the box office), Mandingo’s legacy, if one can call it such, is now divided between black-on-white porn fetishists (urbandictionary.com defines mandingo as some variation of “black man with huge cock”), and connoisseurs of trash cinema. A quick perusal of Amazon.com’s user reviews of the Region 2 DVD (it’s unavailable in Region 1) provides such accolades as hot Southern sleaze, good trailer trash entertainment, this movie is low-grade porn, sleazy, preposterous, but a heck of a lot of fun, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I might add that these are the positive reviews. But this guilty pleasure approach to the film is not merely the angle of cult film enthusiasts; as august an institution as the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which screened Mandingo to a nearly full house, advertised their Film Comment Selects series as “Martial Arts, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Zombies, and Mandingo,” lumping the film in with three hallmarks of cinematic cheesiness. And with that, expecting some sort of grindhouse mash-up of Gone With the Wind, The Birth of a Nation, Shaft, and Deep Throat, my two friends and I headed into the screening anticipating the most lurid of melodramas, along with a theater full of porn-addled racists.
While I still don’t know if the guy next to me was into interracial hardcore, I do know that Mandingo is not only one of the most subversively exploitative films America has ever produced, it is also one of the quintessential masterpieces of American filmmaking. A no-holds-barred confrontation of the unsavory and the titillating, the film locates the birth of the nation not on the battlefields of the Civil War but in the bedrooms and plantations of the Deep South, where the capitalist power of white patriarchy has run amok and created a system of exploitation and enslavement that spares no one. First, a quick summary: in antebellum Louisiana, Warren Maxwell and his son, Hammond, own a slave-breeding plantation where a pure-bred “Mandingo” slave is prized as much as a white male heir. Trouble is, Hammond suffers from an extreme case of jungle fever and, despite a hasty marriage to his cousin, Blanche, prefers to sleep exclusively with his “bed wench,” Ellen. Blanche does not help matters by having been deflowered by her brother (no joke). To his father’s delight, Hammond buys Mede, a pure Mandingo “buck,” off an auction block and proceeds to have him breed and fight other slaves for money. Blanche, alcoholic and jealous, threatens/seduces Mede and eventually gives birth to his black child. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that the film climaxes with poison, shootings, a pitchfork, and a cauldron of boiling water large enough to fit a man. These basic plot points are punctuated throughout by rape, beatings, a hanging, and abhorrent, almost surreal racism from all sides.
But the film itself is far from racist, contrary to what many have contended. It offends not in its attitude toward its characters but by what the characters do to each other; anyone who honestly watches the film should be able to hear plainly the howl of outrage it emits at a society that allows slavery to exist. I have read opinions that compare Mandingo to The Birth of a Nation in terms of its overt racism, condemning Mandingo as garbage but defending Birth of a Nation because of its historical significance. The two cannot be more different in their treatment of race in America. Birth of a Nation participates in racism, painting actors in blackface, depicting the black characters as drooling Neanderthals, sympathizing completely with not only the Confederates but the KKK itself. Mandingo, on the other hand, presents and explores racism, depicting the cruelties inflicted on the slaves, the slaves’ struggle to make the best of a horrifying situation, and the effect this system of ownership has on both black and white, man and woman, while empathizing with all of the main players. It is the film’s depiction of pervasive, perverse racism – its unrelenting commitment to rub the audience’s face in the most brutally intimate actions between a master and a slave, often to the point of implicating the audience – combined with its operatic melodramatic structure that, I think, offends many and leads many others to write it off as empty exploitation, sleaze, or comedy, rather than face the odious truth of what is being presented.
Every country likes to see itself in the best possible light. This is why we have national myths. Too often, though, the national myth produces a master narrative that either leaves out or marginalizes the minority voices that flow within it. Thus, this country’s original sin of Native American genocide is glossed over with everything from the John Smith and Pocahontas story to the classic grade school computer game Oregon Trail, where the only time you meet Native Americans on the westward journey is at river crossings where you can pay them to help you. With respect to our nation’s greatest identity crisis, the Civil War, it is not surprising that Gone With the Wind is how we prefer to remember ourselves. We were a noble America then, still civilized in the Old World tradition, a country where the men were gallant, the women beautiful and vibrant, the land glorious in widescreen technicolor. In the midst of disaster, there was still hope, for tomorrow was a new day. And slavery wasn’t so bad, just a matter of birthin’ babies. I’m not so naïve as to think that any significant portion of America takes the faux history of Gone With the Wind seriously, but the master narrative of our country is more or less the same: it is the story of the rich and the white, the heroic and the romantic. Thus, there is a tendency for filmmakers and filmgoers alike to want their period pieces to be beautiful and elegant, to espouse the liberal values that we have today that probably didn’t exist whenever the story was taking place, as if to remind ourselves that even when the times were bad, we were still at our core a good people.
Part of what makes people react so negatively and/or blithely to Mandingo is its determined aesthetic against the Gone With the Wind mentality of both filmmaking and mythmaking. Many have accused Mandingo of simply being a poorly made film, but anyone with the remotest appreciation of framing, lighting, camera movement, and editing can see that Fleischer and his technical team are in top form. What audiences and critics alike are reacting to is the unprecedented, purposeful ugliness of the image, both in terms of the mise en sc ène and the nature of the characters. For instance, the opening shots that draw us closer and closer to Falconhurst, the Maxwell’s plantation, establish Mandingo as a sort of corrective to the romanticized, neutered version of the Old South that films like Gone With the Wind have helped ingrain in the national consciousness. Falconhurst is overgrown with brush, unkempt and decrepit, the interiors bare and dark, as if rotting from some evil within—the antithesis of Tara. An insular aristocracy like that of Old Europe, complete with intermarriage and incest, replaces the chivalrous gentry. Susan George, as Blanche, creates a character that on the surface is the stereotypical southern belle, but soon reveals herself to be a tortured, sexually frustrated woman who cannot find the proper feminine identity with which to satisfy the patriarchy she is herself enslaved in (take that, Scarlett O’Hara). Every element of the film, in other words, serves to upend our naïve expectations of what we think we know. Maurice Jarre’s score also plays an integral part in the film’s mythological deconstruction; the film opens with a blues rather than a lush Max Steiner score; toward the beginning of the film, the score consists heavily of a jaunty, faux Dixie tune; as the depravity progresses, the tune likewise mutates, retaining its theme but full of dissonance and odd instrumentation, often giving way completely to a tribal theme meant to evoke the African origins of the slaves. The score, like the film, strips away the hegemonic ideal of the American south and replaces it with a grotesque plurality of voices, giving way to a far more unpleasant truth.
Or is it the truth? Much of the derision aimed at Mandingo comes from a belief that what it depicts is so outrageous that it cannot be true, it must be comedy. Certainly, the performances, particularly those of James Mason and Susan George, are over-the-top – in the case of the latter so much so that it often veers into camp – but I think Fleischer knows exactly what he is doing. Throughout the film there are acts of racism so unfathomable to a modern audience that they appear totally absurd: to cure his rheumatism, Papa Maxwell places a young slave boy at his feet while in bed, pushing against the boy’s the stomach in order to flush the pain out of his own body and into his; the same boy is seen time and time again lying flat on the ground while Maxwell uses him as a foot stool; Mede is forced to toughen his skin before a big fight by sitting in that aforementioned cauldron of hot water; etc. To see these images is a surreal experience, but that does not mean they did not occur. Moreover, whether or not the specific offenses that the film depicts actually took place is not really the issue; I have no doubt that if they did not, something equally horrible, if not more so, did. If there is anything the history of humanity has taught us, it is that there is no end to the sadistic imagination. The audience I watched the film with chuckled throughout, whether it be at the sight of the boy absorbing rheumatism or a line like, “Niggers don’t feel pain as fast as white folks.” I don’t believe this laughter comes from any sort of innate racism or lack of compassion toward the slaves, but rather from a lack of any sort of apparatus with which to understand how something like this could have occurred. We are taught in schools and through cultural osmosis that the slaves were whipped and forced to do backbreaking work, but the extent to which they were simply used as sub-human property – to breed, to fight, to fuck – the exceedingly intimate way blacks and whites constantly interacted as abuser and abused, is (hopefully) not something a modern mind can comprehend. So, we laugh. Fleischer understands this and purposely heightens the already extreme offerings that much further, pushing the idea that a society that can do these things is indeed absurd. There are several small, throwaway scenes and images that highlight the underlying surrealism of what we are seeing, most memorably for me a quick tracking shot of a group of chained slaves marching in line with two slaves in front playing Yankee Doodle on a fiddle and waving a giant American flag to keep time. In this context, the performances of Mason and George, who play the two most virulently racist characters in the film, are exactly as they should be, highlighting the bewildering absurdity that slavery and racism require to thrive.
An interesting comparison can be made to a film like Schindler’s List, where the crimes it forces us to watch are just as terrible and absurd but because the events are relatively recent and well documented, the audience believes and shudders in horror. Schindler’s List also has the advantage of being shown from the point of view of an outsider; every time Ralph Feinnes commits some random act of violence, we get a reaction shot of Liam Neeson quietly outraged, effectively dictating and channeling the audience’s own reaction. To further the distancing effect, the film is shot as if it were a historical document, leaving the audience no melodramatic rack to hang its emotions on (and denying the overwhelming visceral impact of a color Holocaust); instead, the emotion comes flooding through unfiltered at the sight of the direct image. In this way Schindler’s List continues in the line of historical filmmaking that serves a national and cultural interest, creating a master narrative where good trumps evil and audiences can be entertained without feeling sullied; this is not to say that its history is whitewashed in the same vein as Gone With the Wind, but it is made palatable. The film is beautifully and elegantly shot, the tone is solemn and programmatic, the hero is someone who does what we would like to believe we would have done.1 Mandingo, as should be clear by now, eschews this approach. There are no heroes, there are no real villains, the physical and verbal abuse meted out to the slaves is so nonchalant and amoral that, again, the audience almost has no option other than to laugh.
One of the great, distasteful devices that Fleischer hinges the film on is the constantly fluctuating identification we feel with Hammond. Played by King with charm and rage, gentleness and brutality, Hammond is the film’s most complex character, a man whose morality sputters and shifts depending on the situation he finds himself in. During the opening scenes of the film, which show Hammond to be an almost grudging slave master, I remember feeling a distinct pang of disappointment: he is relatively kind to his “wenches,” he is sickened by the physical punishment he is required to inflict upon unruly slaves, he is generally a good-natured man; in other words, I thought we were heading toward Ed Zwick-Glory-The Last Samurai-white guilt territory, where one righteous white man redeems the sins of his people and helps the oppressed rise up. Thankfully, the film is not so simple. Fleischer deliberately makes Hammond sympathetic in the early scenes in order to lull the audience into the expected patterns of identification. At every turn, though, he undermines this connection and in so doing, implicates the audience in the system of exploitation that Hammond partakes in. For instance, when Hammond and his cousin visit a neighboring plantation and are presented with two young slave girls for the night, Hammond has to leave the room out of disgust when his cousin starts beating one for no reason. However, in another bedroom with the other slave girl, Ellen, Hammond gets ready to participate in the same kind of forced sex! Fleischer, though, turns the screw again as Hammond shows a remarkable tenderness toward Ellen, asking her to look him in the eyes and allowing her to leave if she wants to. The soft close ups and the subtle acting render the scene, dare I say it, romantic, and almost makes the audience forget that this is a master-slave relationship. As the scene ends, it fades to the next day where Hammond is, at the behest of his father, seeking his cousin’s hand in marriage in order to provide an heir to Falconhurst. Whatever good will we have toward Hammond is sapped as we realize that for him, sex, like everything else, is a commodity transaction.
A clearer example of this dynamic takes place during one of the film’s brutal set pieces, the “prize fight” between Mede and another slave, Topaz. Mede is losing badly as Fleischer swings his camera over to Hammond, who is desperately yelling, “I yield the fight! I yield the fight!” The audience agrees admirably with him. But then Mede turns the fight around, and as Hammond switches from concern for Mede to exuberant cheering, so do we. Fleischer’s trump card in this already morally problematic sequence is to make the fight go on and on and on, escalating the clawing, biting, testicle-thumping violence until the whole animalistic scene is too much to bear. Moreover, the handheld camera brings us uncomfortably close to the action, at times even cutting to point of view shots from Mede’s perspective. In the course of this sequence, Fleischer transforms our act of cinematic exploitation around and places us in the role of the exploited, turning us from Hammond to Mede. By the time the fight is over, whatever visceral excitement we experienced is gone, replaced by a sickening feeling of complicity and exhaustion.
This scene encapsulates Fleischer’s formal strategy of exploitation and deconstruction. It is in part because of excruciatingly violent scenes like this one that people accuse the film of being exploitation. How can you use the backdrop of slavery to deliver these vicarious thrills? And yes, as I said in the beginning, I agree that the film is intensely exploitative. As a melodrama, it entices the viewer with (large doses) of sex and violence; I cannot deny that part of the appeal of the film as an entertainment stems from prurient interest. The fact that it is a slave drama sets the usual melodramatic structure of setup and payoff teetering on a moral precipice. But Fleischer’s strategy is to play with that balance, to take the audience to the brink of empty exploitation and then, as he does in the fight scene, undercut the titillation and force the viewer to reconcile his or her participation in both the aesthetic and the diegetic systems of exploitation on display. To take another example, in the aforementioned scene involving Hammond, his cousin, and the two slave girls, Fleischer puts into motion what could be an exceptionally raunchy scene; but when Hammond’s cousin takes off his belt and starts beating the girl, the camera closes up on her shocked, pained face instead of staying wide. The lascivious promise of erotica is immediately undercut and whatever cinematic exploitation was at work becomes an entryway into the very real exploitation of slavery. The genius of the film’s formal strategies is that it not only shows you the horrors of slavery, it makes you feel them.
The notorious Blanche-Mede sex scene works in much the same way, though it has been unfairly written off as a nympho white woman’s taboo fantasy-come-true. Despite Susan George’s histrionics, Blanche is ultimately a tragic and sympathetic character, enslaved, in her own way, within the patriarchal structures of her society. She is not a nympho, but rather a sexually frustrated, emotionally neglected woman who saw her marriage as an escape from her incestuous past, only to find that the societal expectations of purity will haunt her forever. Her seduction of Mede, then, is multifaceted: she is jealous of Hammond and Ellen’s relationship and so strikes out in vengeance; as a woman she is denied power and autonomy and so resorts to abusing those lower than she; and finally, she is denied her husband’s attention and so craves affection. Here, again, Fleischer’s technique proves itself to be profoundly subtle and powerful. In the same pattern as discussed above, the scene begins ripe with kinky promise; Blanche slowly undresses Mede and caresses his body. Mede (he is a man, after all) reciprocates but instead of leaping right into buckling passion, Fleischer gives a close-up of Blanche nestling her head against Mede’s chest, a mix of sorrow and contentment on her face, as if she were hugging a long lost lover; we realize, sadly, that this may be the closest she has gotten to being loved at Falconhurst. The scene ends not with a bang, as it were, but a whimper. Instead of fading out on Mede’s (literally) shuddering orgasm, we pull back to a high angle shot of Mede on top of Blanche, both lying perfectly still, frozen in a tableau Brecht himself would be proud of. Again, Fleischer is forcing us to reevaluate the scene; the erotic payoff is undercut and we are instead left with two slaves whose ends, we know, will not be good.
Now, I don’t dare compare a rich white woman’s troubles with that of a black slave, but the fact remains that in the patriarchal society the film depicts, a woman was, in a sense, a slave to her man. As presented in the film, the men in this society, bristling with entitlement, suffer from a Madonna-whore complex on a massive scale, where there is an entire population of black “whores” to choose from for each white Madonna they wed. The misogynistic expectations of purity and grace toward the white women and the violent and racist attitudes toward the black women form two sides of the same patriarchal coin. In this system of exploitation, neither women nor slave is free, all exist for and at the pleasure of white men. The poison at the root of this society, the film implies, is capitalism. Scene after scene takes place at a brothel; money exchanges hands for slaves and dowry; Mede’s gladiatorial bout yields a cash prize for the Maxwell’s; Hammond’s marriage is purely for the future of Falconhurst. Contrary to what we’ve always been told, it was the agrarian South, not the industrial North, that truly understood capitalism. At its worst, which is to say in its purest manifestation, everything and everyone is a commodity to be used, traded, or sold. And when the white male ruling class owns everything from white women and black slaves to land and money, the only thing that can hurt them is their pride.
It is the injury to Hammond’s white male pride that sets off the disastrous chain of events that closes the film. His complete transformation from the ambivalent moral center of the film to the snarling murderer at the end is all the more monstrous given our previous identification with him. Here, Fleischer’s structure comes full circle with the ultimate realignment of our expectations and sympathies. Just a few scenes prior we saw Hammond refuse to let a woman and her baby be separated at a slave auction; now, minutes later, he is impaling a man with a pitchfork. The change is not spurred so much by a sudden ignition of his latent racism but rather by his cuckolding at the hands of Blanche and Mede. It is the system of exploitation, of ownership, of unfettered capitalism and white patriarchy that dictates Hammond’s actions. Misogyny and racism, murder and rape are all merely the symptoms of a society that is fundamentally ill. It is a systemic disease that we still see signs of today, though to be sure we have come a long way.2 The film’s subtle allusions to the blaxploitation genre, however – with slaves calling each other “black brothas” and telling their masters to “kiss my ass” – directly link the film to the present. The references to that genre, born of the ongoing struggle for basic human dignity, remind us that the past is not so far behind. And if Hammond can commit the actions that he does, so still can we. As much as we hate to admit it, as much as we would prefer to laugh it away or label it trash and take refuge in our officially sanctioned myths, this forgotten masterpiece, this exploitation film about exploitation, is perhaps the truest and ugliest mirror ever thrust upon the American screen.
1 This is not to discount Spielberg’s achievement; I am simply pointing out how aesthetic choices can determine how an audience sees a historical film, particularly one concerning some sort of societal trauma. ↩
2 At the risk of hopelessly dating this essay, I think it’s inevitable that we look at this presidential primary season in conjunction with a film like Mandingo. Certainly, the fact that a black man and a white woman were able to give us the most hotly contested, passionate primary in history shows how much progress has been made in breaking down the barriers of white patriarchy. Yet, at the same time, the race has shown just how limited our progress has been. Would Obama’s patriotism be under such scrutiny if he were white? Would Hillary have been so irrationally and openly hated if she were male? More than transcending race or gender, this race has exposed the cancer of racism and misogyny still festering beneath the surface of this country, challenging us to fight against it. And as is unfortunately the case with cancer, the fight may be debilitatingy self-destructive. Meanwhile, an old white man who has no business winning in the current political climate has been sitting bedside for months, ready to pull the plug. ↩