Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mandingo (1975)

21st Century Schizoid Man

directed by Richard Fleischer
starring James Mason, Susan George, Perry King,
Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton

When it comes to defending the "indefensible," I'm like the crazy old cat lady at the dark end of Culture Street, taking stray bits of musical and cinematic refuse under my wing and nursing them into full-blown obsessions. Just ask anyone I've exposed to the "racist" country songs of David Allan Coe or the tragically uncool dork-rock of Rush or Yes — things invariably shat upon by hipsters nipping at the prune juice of assumed irrelevance, too safe inside their bubbles to actually expose themselves to what they're ridiculing. The biker-bar vernacular of those notorious Coe numbers is — like the slang of the projects or the Guido-ese spoken in Brooklyn or Jersey — a tradition-forged American tongue sanctioned neither by social propriety nor Strunk & White; a tribal self-portrait whose warts-and-all honesty one needn't embrace but which only a philistine would want silenced. Censorship via "political correctness" — say, the campaign to de-"nigger"-ize Huckleberry Finn — is one way to Windex the bum's fingerprints of a now-embarrassing past from our collective American windshield. Smugly relegating viable works of art to the trash heap of Bad B-Movie Night is another.

Such has been the fate of Richard Fleischer's ballsy 1975 slave epic Mandingo, a film that merits a place at the table with the Nashvilles and Barry Lyndons of its year, not shunted off to a crappy seat next to Dolemite over in the colored section. Set on Falconhurst, a slave-breeding plantation in 1840's Looziana, it ostensibly tells the story of rheumatic old slaver Warren Maxwell (James Mason) struggling to keep his business afloat when son Hammond (Perry King) buys Mede (boxer Ken Norton), a strapping Mandingo buck prized as the biggest and strongest around. Mede turns out to be a walking ATM for his new owners — whether ripping the Maxwells' stable of wenches in half with his Nubian man-snake and siring top-dollar babies in the process or decimating his fellow slaves in high-stakes death-matches. It’s odd — for a movie that’s been trying to scrape critical consensus off the bottom of its shoe for almost forty years — how restrained Fleischer’s direction actually is. He’s interested neither in preaching nor in soppy liberal hand-wringing — the moral rot of the characters’ milieu is already coded into the visual design, the tone, the pacing. Richard Kline's appropriately moody cinematography makes decrepit old Falconhurst the haunted house from a national nightmare, the stand-in for a barren way of life that's withering on the vine — its rooms and hallways cloaked in suffocating shadows, scarcely inhabited by people or with only the barest semblance of furnishings. This is no place to call home. Not even the midday Louisiana sun gives off any warmth here.

Look at the film through twenty-first century goggles, though, and the axis of tragedy becomes clearer. Forget about black folk in chains — Mandingo is the tragedy of a white man with a yen for dark meat, born in the wrong era. Hammond is introduced to us as a man utterly unmoved by sexy blonde prostitutes pawing at his crotch, a slaveowner for whom the right of Massa to deflower and impregnate his wenches is personal gospel. Papa Warren wants grandbabies more than three-fifths human, though, so he presses Hammond to take a white wife (Susan George) when Hammond's perfectly happy spilling the remainder of his fertile years inside Ellen (Brenda Sykes), the brown sugar he saves his sweetest nothings for — his real wife.

Of course, the antebellum South was a bit early for a white man with the predilections of Robert De Niro. Hammond calls up every excuse in the Good Book — white wimmens ain't s'posed to like sex, wifey Blanche lacked cherry on their wedding night — to explain away his lack of interest in his blushing bride, to justify the spot his beacon of Southern womanhood holds on the totem pole beneath Mede and Ellen. Compare each couple's consummation: the tenderness he shows Ellen (at least, she's a virgin) versus the way he cruelly rebuffs Blanche — clearly smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that Blanche's severe melanin deficiency has left him limper than a wet newspaper. Poor Blanche — even Daddy Maxwell (of all indignities) shows more excitement at the sight of Mede than he does at meeting his new daughter-in-law. Not even relieving Ellen of the burden of bearing Hammond's mulatto spawn can sew up that quivering gash in her pride. Booted from her perch of privilege and landing in the mud next to slave quarters, a seething Blanche finally demands a little sugar from new neighbor Mede — forcing Hubby to take up arms in defense of affronted white male supremacy and hastening, in one fell swoop, the very end to the Falconhurst empire that her presence was supposed to prevent. Hell hath no fury like a white woman scorned.

It's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — however overripe its Lady Macbeth — and what's obvious, once you hose off the shit-stew of derision and nervous titters that tastemakers have sprayed Mandingo with for over three decades, is what a powerful film it is. The American history book shows race relations as a bunch of disparate, and possibly incompatible, ingredients tossed willy-nilly into a pressure cooker, sealed tight, and cranked up to 165 degrees — thusly, so is Mandingo. Our enlightened, college-educated, post-Martin Luther King minds can't conceive of a society where the ability of li'l nigger boys to drain the rheumatism out of the feet of old white men was casual dinner-table conversation. Our enlightened, college-educated minds can't conceive of a world where the impossibility of blacks having souls was common knowledge.

And yet, there it is — the hairy brown maw of unsanitized history that Mandingo spreads wide and shoves in our faces, complete with its own set of rules: 1) never kiss a nigger wench on the mouth; 2) niggers never look a white person in the eye, or address one, unless given permission first; 3) blinding a nigger in one eye is the perfect punishment for said nigger having learned to read since it learns 'em real good and, with one eye left, they can still perform their duties; 4) breeding a nigger with his own relatives isn't incest any more than it is with farm animals; 5) it's not like niggers'd know their own family, anyway, since they were most likely sold off as babies; 6) if the progeny of a nigger fornicatin' with his own kin turns out some kinda retard, well, you just kill it.

We howl with our friends at Susan George's overwrought Southern-belle jive because we're dancing on strings held by thirty years of "it's a trashy B-movie!" orthodoxy. Certainly, it's easier than breaking from the pack of hipster hyenas. Certainly, it's easier than pausing to consider George's bug-eyed hyperventilating as a performance that Blanche herself would undoubtedly give in order to maintain the chaste-maiden-of-the-South image that antebellum society expected of its white women. When your rich new plantation-heir husband figures out that you've had cock before his and calls your purity into question, you pound your fist into the bed and take your umbrage in declamatory shrieks — it's the only way to convince.

We tell ourselves to laugh at the mondo bizarro world that Mandingo presents because if it ain't funny, then it's true — and if it's true that human beings actually lived and prospered and slept soundly in a world like this, then it's too fucking horrible to contemplate. It's horrible enough to make you forget that your own ancestors didn't arrive at these shores from Europe until the 1930's; horrible enough to make you offer up your own fat middle-aged wife as sexual reparations for boneheaded, irony-free Negroes who blissfully trumpet their own status as prized bucks for the gratification of flabby white suburbanites, and then slap high-fives with their homies and crow about how the times, they are a-changin'.

All the so-called "tawdry" elements of the film? Trashy interracial sex? Whites using blacks as disposable sexual objects? White women who feel unappreciated by white men and spitefully use black cock as a two-by-four with which to bludgeon the "straight" society that rejected them? Blacks basing their self-worth on Massa's approval? Blacks maiming and killing one another for white America's entertainment? Blacks happily assuming control of the whip that keeps their own people in line? Well, that, my friends, is nothing less than the whole sorry-ass Southern-fried Gothic melodrama that's written the script for our American theater right up to the present day — a text from which we have yet to deviate. It's a history of elbows chafed from rubbing — of attempted coexistence futile enough to make the Hatfields and McCoys look like Frisco bathhouse-buddies and volatile enough to make a veritable rainbow of weary Americans toast both pre-hajj Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell. It's a nation of black men nodding out on the opiates of white club pussy and juvenile braggadocio, conjuring up images like the ones in Mandingo to justify sagging pants and grills and thug badges worn proudly to the Church of Blame Whitey, while the poise and dignity of the Civil Rights Era shrinks in our rear-view mirror like Wile E. Coyote gone off the cliff. It's the big black dick that put a drop of piss in David Allan Coe's glass of Jack Daniels. It's a white male ruling order that was destined, from day one, to push black males and white women together, rendering them strange bedfellows in the boudoir of mutual disenchantment. 

Mandingo doesn't call the collision of black and white on the minefield of capitalism "combustible," it sketches race in America as a fucking wad of nitroglycerin packed up the ass of a Parkinson's-afflicted mule that's trapped inside a rickety old truck speeding over a very bumpy road in the mountains — a bomb so potent, it's exploded again and again and again. 1863 New York, the summer of 1919, 1923 Rosewood, 1943 Detroit, Watts '65, Newark in '67, Memphis '68, L.A. '92, Cincinnati in '01, Emmett Till, O.J., hell, the election of Obama — Ken Norton's dong lit the fuse deep inside Susan George's disarranged guts, gracing each successive chapter of the American saga, both black and white, with ashes and rubble.

If you live on the South Side of Chicago, open your window — you can still smell smoke. If you're living near the burned-out shell of what used to be Detroit, or anywhere in L.A. where homeboys and cholos compete for demographic superiority and their every dialogue is a fatally serious version of the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial (one where Latino peanut butter and African-American chocolate don't seem to go so well together), then open your window — smell the smoke. If you're living in Oakland — smell the smoke. Baltimore — smell the smoke. St. Louis? Jackson, Mississippi? Birmingham, Alabama? Cleveland? N'awlins? The Bronx? Flint, Michigan? Camden, New Jersey? Gary, Indiana — or anywhere else in America where the few remaining whites endure tentatively in a growing sea of black like weather-beaten old statues commemorating the Dutch settlers who founded Harlem; where the "burn, baby, burn" of past riots can still be heard, carried on the wind like the klaxons sounded at the dawn of desegregation? Smell the smoke.

And a question lingers. As the voices of Medgar Evers and James Byrd, Jr., of Reginald Denny and the victims of the D.C. Sniper, of Nicole Brown Simpson plus whatever old lady just got her purse snatched this week, all rise from the smoke to offer a hearty "thanks, guys" to the Hammond Maxwells that struck the first match under America's racial cauldron way back when — a question lingers. That question: is all this smoke the remnant of the last dying fire or the beginnings of a new one?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


Marybelle said...

This film was difficult to watch. The scene where Mede is thrown into the caldron is just horrific. And when they use the little boy's warm stomach on that gross man's feet to cure his arthritis...that was just awful. So many disturbing scenes in this film.

Great review! Although, I got lots of violent flashbacks from the film :(

Anonymous said...

Just a footnote: "Mandingo"'s screenplay was written by Norman
Wexler, who wrote "Saturday Night Fever" for Paramount two years later.

Wexler once threatened to assassinate Nixon, and was a
legendary character in his own right.

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