Mandingo is a curiosity that should be embraced by two groups: historians, and fans of schlock cinema. It’s a film that depicts reality – and that’s why you might feel the need to take a shower after watching it.
The 1975 movie, based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, presents 1830s Southern slavery with no revisionism, no sugarcoating. Nothing is implied when it can be shown: slave auctions, whippings, rape, sex between masters and slaves. Historians should have no objections.
And why do fans of schlock cinema love Mandingo? Nothing is implied when it can be shown: slave auctions, whippings, rape, sex between masters and slaves.
James Mason is all bluster and bigotry as the patriarch of decrepit Falconhurst, an Alabama plantation. He wants a grandson, and that means son Hammond (Perry King) must marry and procreate. Hammond chooses Blanche (Susan George), a conniving belle who makes Scarlett O’Hara seem shy and reserved by comparison. When Hammond learns that Blanche is no virgin on their wedding night, and when he refuses to cease extracurricular activities with a comely black slave (Brenda Sykes), Blanche seeks retaliation – and all melodramatic hell breaks loose.
Mandingo is vulgar but it has lots of hooks, including Mason as the gravel-voiced, rheumatic plantation owner; boxer Ken Norton as a “Mandingo” (an ethnic branch from West Africa) called Mede, who is unlucky enough to attract the attention of Blanche; and some of the most gratuitous sex and violence to come out of 1970s cinema – a decade not exactly short on either.
But mostly, Mandingo has British actress Susan George. George, so memorable as Dustin Hoffman’s unhappy wife in Straw Dogs, is mesmerizing as Blanche, a vixen who personifies evil and yet – when you examine her circumstances – is not entirely unsympathetic. The fairly graphic sex scene between George and boxer-turned-actor Norton was quite daring for 1975.
Mandingo is a potboiler (literally, in one scene) with strong moments. Whether those moments are disturbing yet important, or mere titillation, I’ll let you decide. Grade: B-
Director: Richard Fleischer Cast: James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton, Lillian Hayman, Roy Poole, Paul Benedict, Debra Blackwell, Laura Misch Owens Release: 1975
Watch the Trailer (click here, then scroll down)