‘Mandingo’: they don’t make them like this anymore (or do they?)

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Because I was living not that far above the Mason-Dixon line in 1975, I never had a chance to see the widely panned but hugely successful Southern plantation sex-and-violence drama, “Mandingo.”

I remember reading horrible reviews — from Roger Ebert, among many others — that said Paramount Pictures and producer Dino DeLaurentiis were deeply irresponsible to put out such a lurid, borderline racist film about American history.

The movie was released in the middle of the “blaxploitation” boom of the 1970s when both independent filmmakers and the major studios started making films designed for the black audiences that patronized the huge urban center theaters that were being abandoned by the white moviegoers who were moving out to suburban areas.

When I would go home to Philadelphia for visits in the 1970s I saw how the gigantic theaters of my childhood, like the Fox and the Goldman in Center City, had switched over from mainstream fare to pictures such as “Slaughter” with Jim Brown and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” starring Melvin Van Peebles. As urban redevelopment claimed the downtown movie places in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the blaxploitation cycle came to an end in favor of the multiplex mass release of pictures designed for everyone.   

The black film boom was due to a combination of demographic changes in the big cities and urban real estate in flux, as well as a long-delayed acknowledgement by production companies that the African American audience had been ignored by Hollywood for decades.

“Mandingo” was probably not designed as a blaxploitation film — most of the films in that genre were low-budget quickies — but the way the film looked at slavery from the slaves’ point of view and the presentation of the truly vile white slave owner characters made the picture an enormous hit with black audiences two years before “Roots” aired on ABC.

I caught up with the movie recently due to reports that the forthcoming Quentin Tarantino picture “Django Unchained” (below) — set for release on Dec. 25 — was partially inspired by the director’s love of “Mandingo.”

Tarantino has always celebrated exploitation filmmaking and “Mandingo” certainly falls into that category. 37 years after its original release, the movie still has the power to shock and titillate with its sexually tinged view of the slave-master relationship in the South before the Civil War.

It is still rather bracing to watch a Hollywood picture in which the black characters are the oppressed heroes (and heroines) and the whites are — without exception — racist exploiters. I can only imagine the charged atmosphere in a packed urban theater during a 1975 screening of “Mandingo.”

I doubt that there has ever been a more repellant female leading role in a studio picture than the one that was assigned to Susan George in “Mandingo.” She is the debauched young woman who marries the heir (Perry King) to the plantation after she has been carrying on an incestuous relationship with her brother since their early teen years.

The new husband suspects there is something wrong with the woman, she begins drinking herself into a nightly stupor, and he finds comfort with one of his slaves (Brenda Sykes). The Susan George character gets her revenge by forcing the title character — the “fighting slave” played by former boxer Ken Norton — into bed with her. When she gets pregnant, all hell breaks loose.

“Mandingo” is packed with sex and violence that remains explicit even by 2012 standards. The melodramatic style often seems totally at odds with the serious historical matters that are being dramatized, but I could not stop watching the movie.

The historical material is too important and painful for “Mandingo” to be viewed as camp, but the presentation is so lurid that you keep wondering what everyone involved with the production was thinking as it was being shot.

Expect a lot of “Mandingo” reassessment pieces between now and the opening of “Django Unchained.”

Joe Meyers

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