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Mandingo has been both reviled and celebrated for its portrait of the horrors of American slavery and its salacious mix of sex and violence since its release in 1975. The story of a brutal, virulently racist Southern slave-owning father and his lame son, who has a more romantic view of the relationship between white slavers and the enslaved black population they buy and sell, plays like a tawdry hothouse melodrama of sadism, sexual exploitation and social outrage, with overheated emotions and despicable acts of degradation on display.
After aborted attempts to bring the best-selling 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott, the first in the "Falconhurst" series, to the screen in the 1960s, Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights to the novel along with four other books in the series. Executive producer Ralph Serpe called the original novel "hackwork" and insisted that the film, scripted by Norman Wexler, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Joe (1970) and Serpico (1973), "was faithful to the story of the book but not the spirit." Director Richard Fleischer, whose career spanned five decades and who directed such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), initially turned down the project but changed his mind when he saw the opportunity to portray the evils of slavery in a way that the movies had never broached. "The whole slavery story has been lied about, covered up and romanticized so much that I thought it really had to stop," he explained in a 1976 interview. "The only way to stop was to be as brutal as I could possibly be, to show how these people suffered."
Production began in Louisiana in the summer of 1974 with James Mason in the role of the patriarch, a part reportedly turned down by James Cagney and Charlton Heston. Perry King appeared as the son who marries out of family duty but neglects his frustrated wife (Susan George) for his African-American "wenches." Heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton took to role of Mede, the "Mandingo" of the title, purchased at slave auction by the son and turned into a prize-fighter in brutal boxing matches. While it's technically not his film debut (he had brief uncredited appearances in two previous films) it is his first featured part and his screen credit reads "Introducing Ken Norton."
Blues legend Muddy Waters sings the theme song and, to spotlight the film's riposte to the sentimentalization of the Antebellum South, the Paramount marketing department hired Gone with the Wind poster artist Symeon Shimin to create the promotional artwork, which quotes and parodies his famous poster of the 1939 classic.
Mandingo was released in 1975, at the height of the "Blaxploitation" era, where African-American heroes starred in low-budget genre movies and in the midst of a decade with increasing sensitivity to the portrayals of black lives in movies and on TV. It was a financial hit and even spawned a sequel, Drum, based on the second novel in the "Falconhurst" series and again starring Norton as a fighter.
But for all the intentions of the filmmakers, it was a critical bomb. The Catholic Church condemned the film for "nudity, graphic sex, violence and sadism laid on with a cynical disregard for the demands of morality and art" and the reviews were savage. Roger Ebert called it "racist trash" and Vincent Canby dismissed it as "steamily melodramatic nonsense" in The New York Times.
Despite its popular success, the film largely disappeared from public view for decades, but in later years had been championed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who cited Mandingo in a 1996 interview as one of his favorite movies and, apart from Showgirls, the "only other time in the last twenty years has a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie." Esteemed critic and scholar Robin Wood called it "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood" and, in a 2008 appreciation of director Richard Fleischer, The New York Times critic Dave Kehr celebrated the film as "an anti-Gone with the Wind that treats the pre-Civil War South as a swamp of degradation for white masters and black slaves alike" and "a thinly veiled Holocaust film that spares none of its protagonists." John Patterson proclaimed it "the only intelligent, big-budget studio picture about the full horrors of slavery" in a 2013 article in Britain's The Guardian. But its most enduring legacy is arguably as a major influence on Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), from the onscreen portrait of brutality to the "Mandingo fighting" that plays a central role in the story.
"Richard Fleischer on Mandingo," Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye. Movie No. 22, February 1976.
"In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away," Dave Kehr. The New York Times, February 7, 2008.
"A Silk Purse Out of a Sow's Ear?," Jeff Millar. Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1975.
"Django Unchained: the inglorious history of slavery in the movies," John Patterson. The Guardian, January 14, 2013.
"Tarantino and Juliette," Mim Udovitch. Details, February 1996.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
By Sean Axmaker