The 1970s remains, in my experience at any rate, the pinnacle for mainstream liberal understanding of slavery and the African American experience. As a child I remember being blown completely out of my skull by THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITMAN (1974) which the network showed with only one commercial break. The TV mini-series ROOTS which came in 1977, created an even bigger splash. It had such a huge impact on my neighborhood (Lansdale, PA, nearly all white) that every discussion between adults and children included it. The scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped until he identifies himself instead as “Toby” created a rippling trauma through this country that made people into liberals almost over night if they weren’t already (at least, as I say, in my Northern state). “I had no idea” was the common cry… no idea things were that horrible, or could be that horrible anywhere, ever.
MANDINGO (1975) because it is so sexualized–with an ad campaign selling miscegenation as a sizzling topic–has gotten a bad rap, and Robin Wood writes about it in his excellent essay. The title, the “Gothic hothouse” chamber drama setting, the made for TV-ish bland handsomeness of some of the players — all coagulates to create a sense of historical safety that is repeatedly undermined, but only if you actually watch the film instead of making a knee-jerk liberal dismissal out of hand.
Walking away, stunned and forever scarred from this film, I finally understood–on a visceral level that I doubt shall ever leave me–the impetus abolitionists felt in risking everything on a Civil War rather than merely let the south secede. The horrors depicted here–all the more ghastly for the matter of fact way in which they are performed–are beyond endurable; each is bearable in its time but they compile in the brain until if you have a heart at all it’s not just broken but pulverized. You can label MANDINGO a “litany of racial misconduct” since it does seem to run through a checklist of the most depraved of antebellum practices–but you’d be missing the point. A lifetime is long, and if the film feels like it’s squeezing these indignities in, it certainly makes us feel the collective weight of a lifetime of such abuse. ROOTS kept audiences hooked night after night because there was always the promise of resistance and escape… there’s even a cute and supportive non-racist white couple who help the Kunta Kinte lineage to freedom. MANDINGO, as Wood points out, plays more like a Shakeseperean or Jacobian tragedy, in which everyone is trapped to play out roles which sicken them to the core, but which they are unable to escape, and at the end the stage is awash in blood and death, as inevitable as the end of MACBETH or HAMLET.
It’s also a fascinating yardstick to hold up to our so called “enlightened liberal pundits” (Maltin gives it, infamously, a BOMB rating — mentioning it should be of interest only to the “s&m; crowd”). It’s for the S&M; crowd the way SCHINDLER’S LIST or PLATOON are… the three have a lot in common actually since they are some of the few movies that those who suffered the horrors depicted have looked at and said finally! Wood mentions that MANDINGO was a huge hit with black audiences and won an NAACP award. Meanwhile whites stayed away in droves, scared by the mixing of not just races but sex with slavery, socially condoned ritualistic torture providing a shattering “other cheek” to the blissful blindness of GONE WITH THE WIND.
White liberal critics pan this movie sight unseen. The name is enough, and the kinky image of Susan George straddling “some big black buck” ala some interracial Harlequin romance cover (see the above for the original “Gone with the Wind” parody poster). Many critics note that it plays up to “Brown Sugar”/Jungle Fever, but that’s mainly for the trailers and posters, like the DVD cover above. Once you are in the theater or watching it at home, MANDINGO shows a whole different thing entirely; yes the black body is celebrated and there’s steamy sex drives on display, but there’s also tenderness and the realization that trying to believe that slaves are “soulless and no better than beasts of burden” doesn’t actually work and in fact only dehumanizes the whites who practice it, and with this bait and switch MANDINGO exposes the true horrors of slavery–CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style, we’re trapped by the “salt’n’peppa” prurience into seeing it but what we get is much more than we imagined, far more depraved and heartbreaking. I can’t condemn the sexy posters if it gets unsuspecting white folk like myself into the theater, since if they knew what was really in store–the slow hammering away at the dehumanizing ideology of antebellum south–they’d stay away in droves. If viewers of MANDINGO have a soul at all they must inevitably emerge from the film moved, broken and sickened to the core. There is no other response. Hardly, to that end, something I’d watch again.
But while SCHINDLER and PLATOON were and are honored, MANDINGO hides in the back of the video store with the smut… a “forbidden” nugget (which is, admittedly, a sensible selling point and why I netflixed it in the first place). In fact it is only a “potboiler” the way PLATOON is THE GREEN BERETS. In fact, like PLATOON, it’s a horror movie, straight-up and the most disturbing I’ve seen in some time. A sexually brutalized victim in even the most over-the-top torture porn horror movie may die or escape generally, but usually isn’t condemned to live through their torture and imprisonment continually for generations. The most horrifying element of the film is that the horrors are not treated any differently than any other aspect of life at the plantation. In some hands this might turn the horrific scenes banal, but in MANDINGO it is the reverse: everything, no matter how sweet and beautifully-lighted, is tainted with sad, unending horror.
Rather than comparisons to GONE WITH THE WIND or ROOTS what MANDINGO reminds me of most is the original pre-code DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE with Frederic March’s vile abuse of Miriam Hopkins’ well-meaning trollop. Just as Hammond, the semi-sensitive son of slave master James Mason, gets his forbidden “favorite” slave girl to open up and be nurturing to him, only to slam her away later as “just another n—ger,” so in HYDE the ultimate horror, the one that’s so traumatic because it shows true sadism – the “letting them think they’re going to be all right only to slam down the door on their fingers” bullying scenario of torture porn like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or FUNNY GAMES. (neither of which I’ve seen, and ff you haven’t seen the 1933 March HYDE, be warned, these scenes with Hopkins were deleted for decades
from TV prints).
We’ve all got a tendency to rose-tint the past, which is why MANDINGO should be required viewing in any Social Sciences course. Not just African Americans, but white women and even white sons are exploited and demeaned in the antebellum system, something very real and–presumably–hardly exaggerated at all for the film. Even today such horrors exist for Arab and African women in some fundamentalist Muslim and Christian (Mormon) societies… Watching MANDINGO in the clear light of an Obama-as-president new dawn we should all be able to find the strength to see it free from it’s “bad rep” and let the full weight of its dehumanizing horror wash over us. No matter how far ahead we get in progressive thinking, we need to always remember that the past is not miles behind us, safely out of sight: it’s always biting at our heels and breathing down our necks, waving a pamphlet or burning effigy. MANDINGO catches us up like fly paper, forcing us to look deep into the foul mouth of base humanity.
(P.S. I couldn’t find the Wood piece online for a link, but it’s worth seeking out in his excellent book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film.) Also, there’s a very good piece in “The Film Journal” on Mandingo and it’s undeserved critical reception by Robert Kesser.