There were over 200 film produced during the 1970s that could be called "blaxploitation," ranging from the classic to the completely forgotten. But few have attained the level of infamy that Mandingo has. This is one of those films with a reputation that precedes it, conjuring up all sorts of lurid images. And that's not to say that Mandingo's reputation as a sweaty bit of racist sexploitation trash is not well-deserved, 'cause it is. It's just that of all the blaxploitation films that have lingered in the collective pop-culture consciousness, it qualifies as neither the very best, nor the very worst. In fact, in some ways - especially when compared to so many of the other films of the era and genre - Mandingo can be a bit mediocre.
Set on an old Southern plantation in the 1840s, the film finds plantation and slave owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason), fretting over his only son, Hammond (Perry King). It seems that Pa Maxwell wants Hammond to settle down, find a wife and cultivate the fruit of his loins. The problem is that Hammond pretty much only has a hankering for slave girls--which of course are not suitable for marrying. Still, Hammond agrees to marry Blanche (Susan George), who happens to be his cousin (apparently this sort of thing was acceptable back in those days). Unbeknownst to Hammond, Blanche isn't exactly a virgin, as it turns out she has been carrying on with her brother. Seriously. Well, since Hammond has popped a few cherries in his day, he gets the feeling that his supposed-to-be virgin wife may not be all that virginal. Once he figures out that his new bride has been "pleasured" by another man, he becomes disgusted with her that it drives him back into the velvety folds of his favorite slave girl, Ellen (Brenda Sykes), which of course makes Blanche lose her mind.
Now, while all of this is going on, there's the matter of Mede (Ken Norton) the Maxwells' prime piece of property - a 100% pure-bred Mandingo slave, complete with an ankle-slapping trouser snake. At first Hammond plans to use Mede as a fighter, but quickly loses his taste for the brutality of it. Unfortunately for Mede, when Blanche has finally had enough of Hammond's cold-shoulder treatment, she decides to exact revenge by humping his prize slave. Before you know it, Blanche is craving her some Mandingo love all the time, and she is riding Mede's johnson like it was rollercoaster at Disneyland. When Blanche has a baby that everyone is expecting to be Hammond's, it comes out looking more like a Milkdud, and the poop hits the fan, leading to a brutal massacre.
There's really no way around it--Mandingo is a downright sleazy film. The whole film is build around the salaciously taboo thrill of watching white people and black people having sex. Keep in mind that this was 1975, and stuff like that was still considered really out there (not that we've progressed that much in the last three decades). But despite the whole sexploitation element of the film--something made all the more sleazy by the fact that the film was sold as some sort of historical epic--Mandingo offers an interesting cinematic glimpse at the antebellum South. This is not the glamorized Dixie of Hollywood's past, as depicted in films like Gone with the Wind or The Littlest Rebel. Instead, this is the nasty-ass South where human beings we bought and sold as chattel.
Only in the 1970s could a film like Mandingo get made, and it stands as a shining example of how the changing times were reflected in the blaxploitation films of the era. And I'm not just talking about the blatant sexuality of the film, but also in the militant politics that serve as one of the film's only compelling elements. Ji-Tu Cumbuka has a co-starring roll in the film as Cicero, a rebellious slave who gives voice the popular militancy that found its way into most black-themed films of the 1970. Cicero tries to escape the Maxwell plantation, only to be captured and sentenced to death. Before he is hung, he gives a speech that makes my heart swell with pride. "I ain't goin' to give no lifetime of misery and sweat to these peckerwoods. I'd rather die than be a slave! You, perkerwoods, that's right! You peckerwoods was oppressed in your own land. We was free, and you brought us here, in chains. But now, we here. And you just better know, this is much our land as it is your'n. And after you hang me, kiss my ass!"
Over the years critics have blasted Mandingo for being a terrible film, charges that I'm really in no position to argue (although I wouldn't call it terrible and unwatchable). Critics have also blasted it for being a piece of racist trash, and while I would agree with the trashy part, it is no less racist than the culture and era it depicts--we're talking about slavery, people!!! As far as I'm concerned, I appreciate a movie about slavery where things are a bit unpleasant, blacks suffer, and whites come across as assholes. Something tells me that once you strip away the some of the sexual shenanigans (but not all), Mandingo is closer to the truth than Gone with the Wind could ever hope to be.