Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mandingo (1975)

          This lurid story of sex and violence in the slavery-era South stands alongside The Klansman (1974) as one of the most reviled race dramas of the ’70s. Shameless even by producer Dino De Laurentiis’ déclassé standards, Mandingo is an overwrought soap opera about Falconhurst, a 19th-century plantation owned by aging monster Warren Maxwell (James Mason). The callous patriarch is preoccupied with getting his son Hammond (Perry King) hitched so he can produce an heir, and with buying a Mandingan slave in order to breed “suckers” (a nasty slang term for black babies) who’ll fetch high price tags. However, most of the screen time is devoted not to the master of Falconhurst but to his son’s conflicted relationship with various slaves. Hammond falls in love with his “bed wench,” Ellen (Brenda Sykes), growing closer to her once he enters a loveless marriage with his drunken shrew of a cousin, Blanche (Susan George). Then, when Hammond buys a Mandingo named Mede (Ken Norton), who brings glory to Falconhurst by defeating opponents in brutal bare-knuckle brawls, Hammond buys into the delusion that he’s found a friend. When the threads of Hammond’s life converge in tragedy, however, his true nature as the son of a heartless slave owner emerges.
          Mandingo is a strange movie, because on a technical level, it’s executed with considerable artistry: Richard H. Kline’s shadowy cinematography, Maurice Jarre’s menacing main theme, and the evocative locations create an oppressive mood. Yet journeyman director Richard Fleischer lets scenes run wild, with George flailing and screaming like a wild animal, and the startlingly miscast Mason camping it up as a greasy old son of a bitch who constantly rests his feet against slave children because he believes doing so will cause his rheumatism to drain out of the soles of his feet. One major problem is that the movie never fully develops any of the slave characters, so the slaves come across as caricatured narrative mechanisms instead of people. And though it’s a given that the movie is tasteless, the inevitable scene when Blanche demands sex from Mede is beyond stereotypical, the bloody fight scene in the middle of the picture is beyond excessive, and Mede’s final fate is beyond vile. Mandingo also seems to take itself quite seriously, which is confusing: Did the people making this movie actually think they were tackling a serious subject with the appropriate respect? Still, Mandingo can’t be entirely dismissed because it’s watchable despite a fleshy 127-minute running time. That said, the semi-sequel Drum (1976) has the same lurid appeal without Mandingo’s pretentions to relevance.

Mandingo: FUNKY

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