Perceptively described by Godfrey Cheshire in Moving Midway as “a place of violence and gentility, of pride and shame,” the antebellum plantation remains a site of uncomfortable ghosts. Consider the purposefully degraded Mandingo an invocation and an exorcism. Gentility and pride have been boiled away, and violence and shame have been cranked up to 11: Such is the rotting Deep South depicted in Richard Fleischer’s infamous 1975 melodrama, a film that has been, not unlike its subject, largely filed away to a murky corner of our collective cultural psyche. This is a Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara coerces the titular walking-phallus slave into her featherbed by threatening to cry rape, and Rhett Butler sticks to the wenches until his Southern honor is threatened and he reaches for pitchfork and boiling caldron. Audiences at the time flocked to it even as critics foamed over its “trashiness” and “immorality”; today it seems relegated to movies-we-love-to-hate cultists when it should be discussed side by side with Toni Morrison’s novels and Spike Lee’s sharpest provocations.
Suffocating and decayed, the 1840s Louisiana of Mandingo is just as much a nightmare world as the futuristic dystopia of Fleischer’s Soylent Green. The setting is a slave-breeding farm that, with its dilapidated mansion and barren rooms, lays bare the darker side of capitalism; the Maxwell clan is headed by paterfamilias Warren (James Mason), whose inner corruption is signified by his rheumatism as surely as his son Hammond’s (Perry King) limp represents his unease as a more sensitive man locked in a society of systematic terrorism. Indeed, Hammond’s tenderness, which wins the love of his slave mistress Ellen (Brenda Sykes), stands as one half of the film’s elements of tentative hope for change, the other half being the burgeoning sense of rebellion of Mede (Ken Norton), the family’s strongest slave. “You are strange for a white man,” Ellen tells Hammond after noticing his gentleness, a comment later echoed by Hammond (“You sure are a strange kind of white lady”) to his wife Blanche (Susan George) when she tells him of her longing for sex. Masculine delicacy and female desire are portrayed as taboos almost as threatening to the fiber of a tyrannical system as the mixing of races. Boldly confrontational, the film explicitly braids the oppression of blacks and women, both victims of a culture of ownership; it’s no accident that the fruit of the oppressed, the baby born from Blanche’s affair with Mede, is what triggers the story’s tragic conclusion.
Quentin Tarantino once admiringly compared Mandingo to Showgirls. What the two films share is a kind of heightened impact that’s so astringent that many viewers try to distance themselves by focusing exclusively on their “camp” aspects. (Susan George’s fearlessly tantrum-y performance here is singled out for ridicule as blindly as Elizabeth Berkeley’s ketchup-dousing aria in that Verhoeven masterpiece.) In that sense, both films are descendents of Douglas Sirk’s sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye.
Mandingo is excessive—as in Mede’s gruesome bout with a fellow slave, a bloody illustration of society’s view of blacks as mere bodies on display that further binds the film’s themes by being staged inside a brothel—yet its excesses invariably reveal the caustic truths of social critique. No character in the film is pure, and yet none is free: All are part of a self-perpetuating cycle that taints slave and master equally. The younger characters have the capacity to break the cycle (Hammond’s love for Ellen, Mede’s “No, Massah” declaration at the end), though Fleischer concludes, like von Trier in Dogville, that a corrupt order may have to be destroyed before it can be purified. That the film still remains incendiary may be the ultimate evidence that our darkest chapters are far from safely sealed in history books.