Monday, February 21, 2011

Prez Day Double Feature: Mandingo

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Happy President’s Day! Today we celebrate our pals on the penny, quarter, dollar bill and 5 dollar bill! They deserve reverence in the selection of movies I discuss today, but to quote Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven:  “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” We have a double feature today at Black History Mumf. Our second movie, Vondie Curtis-Hall’s Gridlock’d, is about bureaucracy and frustration. Our first movie, however, details a topic both Washington and Lincoln knew something about: slaves!

 In 1975, Roger Ebert wrote a zero star review of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo. One of the numerous  things that bugged him was the amount of children present at the screening he attended. The review ends:

“This is a film I felt soiled by, and if I'd been one of the kids in the audience, I'm sure I would have been terrified and grief stricken.”

Well, I was one of those kids in the audience—not at this screening but at one in Jersey City—and with all due respect, Mr. Ebert, I was neither terrified nor grief-stricken. I was bored. I went to sleep, laying my head on my cousin’s lap.

Most of the reviews that appeared when Mandingo premiered sounded like Ebert’s review. The movie was a major commercial hit but was reviled by most critics, who saw it as camp or exploitative trash. Fast forward 30+ years, and a new set of reviews popped up declaring Mandingo to be some kind of honest masterpiece that fearlessly showed what slavery was like. It’s even been compared to the work of Toni Morrison. This notion is, to quote my aunt Carol, “pure T. Shit.” Ms. Morrison is way too dignified to get in her car, drive to these reviewers, and slap the everlasting gobstopper shit out of them with her Nobel Prize. If only she had my level of dignity.

Mandingo is trash. It is just as guilty of overkill as any pro-Southern piece of antebellum bullshit produced in Hollywood back in its heyday. Tarantino is quoted as saying it’s the first time a major studio partook in making an old-fashioned exploitation movie. QT’s description is accurate; Mandingo is an exploitation film. Sure, it operates under the “pretense” that we are seeing the “real truth,” but isn’t that what all exploitation movie posters tell you in order to get your ass in a theater seat? It comes “highly recommended” in Josiah Howard’s Blaxploitation book, and Black historian Donald Bogle says it’s “a pulpy, lurid, antebellum potboiler that turns the fantasy world of a romanticized film like ‘Gone with the Wind’ inside out.” That it does, but in exchange it presents a falsely serious film that focuses with laser-like precision on a hot button issue of the ‘70’s: Jungle Fever Sex.

Plus, every single time the film shows something that has the weight of historical accuracy, it is depicted in the most salacious way possible. Mandingo is historic not because it shows these things. It is historic because Dino De Laurentiis, a man who never met a piece of trash and pulp he didn’t like (thanks, Dino!), convinced Paramount to put up the dough to make a big studio exploitation picture. It wasn’t made as a corrective. It was made because we all know nasty motherfuckers will pay to be titillated and shocked by taboo material.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What pisses me off isn’t the movie itself, but some of the reviews I’ve read, both by well-known critics and viewers on imDB, that try to make Mandingo respectable. I stayed awake for my second viewing of Mandingo on VHS, and also last night, when I watched it for the first time since 1988. My reaction is the same: The filmmakers knew what they were doing, and it wasn’t trying to make a serious film about this material. There are far more offensive movies made about slavery (see Goodbye, Uncle Tom if you really want to be sick), but this one has more than enough potential for offense. Its bread is buttered on the Roger Corman side, not the David Wolper one. I submit several examples that prove this was NOT meant to be anything but a moneymaker for the studio by any means necessary.

Example #1: Slaveowner son Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) discovers that his trusted nigger Agamemnon (Richard Ward from The Jerk) can read. He’s been taught by the troublemaking buck slave Hammond just sold to another massa, Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka—more on him in a minute). Hammond’s daddy, Warren (James Mason, who should be ashamed of himself for doing a worse Southern accent than Laurence Olivier does in The Betsy) tells Hammond he should shoot Agamemnon. But Hammond is one of dem new-fangled massas that tries to be fair where appropriate. He doesn’t want to shoot Agamemnon, so he agrees to have him beaten instead. “You gotta cut deep,” says Warren, “cuz a nigger don’t feel physical pain as quick as a White man.” Then Warren tells him to rub fresh red pepper and  “plenty a’salt” into the wounds. Hammond strings up Agamemnon, naked and upside down, and tells another slave to beat him, but not as badly as normal.

So far, so good. I’d read that slaves were often hanged upside down to be beaten, and the whole salt and red pepper thing Warren talks about also seems accurate. I’m even willing to grant that Hammond would ask that his favorite slave be treated a little more gingerly—King does a good job showing conflict and sympathy in this role.  But then we get to the beating.

Agamemnon is, how can I put this delicately, a little more toned than you might have expected him to be. Director Fleischer makes sure he keeps that nekkid ass in frame, so you can see almost every single time that bottom gets paddled. Whap! Whap! Whap! Perry King goes to the far corner of the frame to weep, and you’d think Fleischer would stay with his actor as he tries to reconcile his emotion. But no, Fleischer moves his camera right back to focus on the nekkid ass whipping. Whap! Whap! Whap!  It goes on and on and on.

Then, Hammond’s sadistic cousin comes in, and, in obvious sexual glee, takes the paddle from the slave so he can show him the real way to whup an ass. More ass shots. Whap! Whap! Whap! Hammond comes running, screaming “How dare you handle my niggers!” before realizing that this is his cuz. Even during this conversation, Richard Ward’s ass appears between the two actors. Don’t dare tell me that the framing, and length, of these scenes wasn’t intentional, and designed for maximum exploitative value.

Example #2: Hammond has Jungle Fever. “It’s massa’s duty ta plez-yuh da wenches de first time,” says James Mason’s shitty accent, and Hammond has taken this to heart, nailing every young Black female on the plantation. So far, so good. We all know massa was in our ancestors’ tents. But then we get scenes of Hammond’s latest deflowerin’ running off crying that “I too Black for massa!” Then, in the scene before Agamemnon’s beating, Hammond is shown undressing before bedding his next bed wench. Fleischer gives the ladies a full frontal shot of Hammond. Lest you think I’m anti-penis or something, I say this is only fair as in the same scene Mandingo gives me something I had a harder time viewing: Debbi Morgan, who gave one of the best performances ever put on celluloid in Eve’s Bayou, is here reduced to a naked bed wench with really bad dialogue. “I’se knocked up, master suh! When mah sucker come, why cant’s I keep it?”

Hammond explains that this isn’t possible because he might have to sell her “sucker” so he doesn’t want her to become attached to it. Then, Hammond kneels down and starts praying. Rather than the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd psalm, he says the kiddie prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Morgan’s titty, which has been in the frame all this time, stays in the corner of the frame, bearing witness to this grown ass naked man saying a 5-year old’s prayer. Yeah, this is how it “really was.” Uh-huh. They could have at least gotten the titty out of the frame if they wanted me to take this seriously.

Example #3: There isn’t ONE SCENE of anybody doing any work in this movie. Nobody picks a bale o’cotton, let alone jumps up and turns around before doing so. The reason why Falconhurst looks like shit is because the slaves aren’t working. Everybody is just having interracial sex, doing UFC or giving ridiculous speeches about Black pride. Ji-Tu Cumbuka brings the fiery Nat Turner vibe to his role as Cicero, but his dialogue is designed to stoke the fires of 1975’s audiences. He calls himself Black, for starters, tells Massa to kiss his ass right before they hang him and, in the screenplay’s most blatant pander, says “when I hang, you gonna know they HUNG A BLACK BRUVA!!!” Cumbuka should have thrown up the Black power fist while a wah-wah guitar blasted in the background.

A few years ago, I sat in a room in a museum in San Francisco and listened to Black actors like Samuel Yell Jackson, Loretta Devine, and Angela Bassett read the actual narratives and letters of former slaves. The room was empty and dark, forcing you to focus on the words spoken by the actors. I sat there in the dark for about 2 hours, mesmerized by what was said. None of it sounded one iota like the shit writer Norman Wexler puts into the mouth of Cicero. For starters, every single narrator I heard referred to him or herself as "cullud" or "nigger."

Example #4: The Mandingo of the title, Mede, played by Ken Norton, is primed for a revolt that never comes. The moviemakers must have realized their mistake because Mandingo’s “sequel” Drum was released a year later. Norton broke Ali’s jaw two years before Mandingo, but the film treats him the way George Foreman did in 1974.  Norton’s first scene is my favorite in the movie. He’s on the auction block, and there’s a German widow with a disastrous accent interested in buying him. She knows the Mandingo has a rep for being an uber-buck who “is hung so big he might tear the wenches.” The German “vidow” doesn’t waste any time. “This is what I lookin’ for, ja!” she says. Then she puts her hand right down Norton’s loincloth.  When Hammond protests, Mr. Bentley from the Jeffersons (who earlier looked directly up a guy's ass to check for piles) tells him that the “vidow” is down with the swirl. To keep her from turning Mede into a sex slave, Hammond buys him. The vidow utters a line I swear to you someone said to a guy about me when I was working in Germany:

“You are no gentleman! Trying to take the nigger away from the poor German vidow voman!”

Mandingo gives us a scene between Cicero and Mede that makes us think that Mede will pick up where Cicero left off. He’s certainly big enough to cause damage to more than the slave wenches. He looks like he can kick some ass, which is the other reason why Hammond buys him. You could even justify the UFC match at the brothel, where Mede treats his opponent the way Cookie Monster treats a cookie, as foreshadowing for a bloody revolt against Massa. THAT would have turned Mandingo into the “anti-Gone With the Wind.”  But no, Mandingo goes down that trash route, turning Mede into a get some dick for free card. When Mede finally rebels against the slave life, his rebellion is two words: “No massuh.” Massa kills his ass with a pitchfork, a gun, and a cauldron of scalding hot water. Jason from Friday the 13th got less killing than Mede does.

Are you tired of me pulling apart those bullshit reviews that say this is some kind of revisionist masterpiece of realism and not the trashy camp classic crowdpleaser it actually is? Bear with me for one more example:

Example #5: Susan George’s over the top ridiculous performance as Hammond’s cousin/wife, Blanche. (Why are all the crazy Southern chicks named Blanche? It’s like how all the leads in cullud musicals are named Joe.) Deflowered by her brother (the same guy who likes whipping slave ass), Blanche jumps at the chance to marry Hammond so she can get away from her family. So far, so good. Incest was fairly popular in the South back then, a holdover from the days when royalty married family members. I can also buy Hammond’s fury when he realizes after marriage that he’s not the first man to have “plez-yuhed” Blanche. This entire plot line is presented with minimal trashiness, and Hammond’s refusal to touch Blanche after this is credible. I’m even willing to go with Hammond falling in love with the lovely, sexy Brenda Sykes (who wouldn’t?) and favoring her over the screechy Blanche. But Blanche is the key to Hammond’s undoing, and as played by George, she’s so absurdly rendered that you can’t stop laughing at her. If Fleischer were going for realism, couldn’t he have made George watch some old Bette Davis movies to see how to play a Southern belle?

Watch the scene where Blanche causes Sykes to fall down the stairs and miscarry the “sucker” she’s going to bear for Hammond. George gets a riding crop and starts whipping items in the room. Her entire scene with Sykes is a mismatch. All Sykes has to do is hit this bitch and run like hell. Instead, she falls to her knees and Blanche chews the scenery to bits. It’s not harrowing at all, and George, a horrible actress by every standard (yes, I’ve seen Straw Dogs folks), is the movie’s one true camp attribute.

Blanche’s seduction of Mede is the best example I can give for Fleischer and company’s intentions of “shocking” sexuality in the false guise of revisionism. Maurice Jarre’s score has, until this point, had an out of place jauntiness that seemed way too cheerful for the material. But during the seduction scene, the score takes on almost a horror movie tone. It’s saying “oh Lawdy! Dis here big buck gon’ fuck da hell outta dis here White woman! Dis what y’all done came ta see!” It’s the ONLY sex scene in the movie shown in its entirety, and the shot of the huge Norton laying between the legs of this small, “genteel” White woman was given to us for ONE REASON ONLY.

Like I said earlier: Mandingo is trash. Readers know I love trash like Oscar the Grouch does, so I admit I found Mandingo “highly recommendable” from that perspective. But to you folks who think this movie is anything but exploitation: don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining. Accept this movie for what it is, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. One scene of James Mason resting his nasty bare feet on a naked slave boy he thinks can cure his rheumatiz’ is harrowing.

Multiple scenes of him doing that (I counted six) is parody.

This is like kiddie porn crossed with foot fetish videos.

 Where were the child labor laws protecting that poor kid?!

I like to think Mason's character died from athlete's foot he got from those naked slave boys.

With different framing, a better script, and a more honest depiction of some of the things the movie touches on, we could have had a truly subversive movie, a cinematic Roots. But that was never the filmmakers’ intention at all. And I’m fine with that, so long as we, to use that racist phrase, “call a spade a spade.”

 This is for showing my ass being paddled for 5 fucking minutes!!


Steven Boone said...

Alls I know, from reading this, I have to go back and watch the flick pretty soon. Sounds twice as entertaining as I remember it.

I nearly choked to death when I saw your James Mason foot stool collage.

Tell me why my brother, cousin and I snickered even the very first time we saw James Mason's feet propped up on a nigro boy? It only got funnier each time he showed up using his niggerstool. Something about extreme racism that is just fundamentally hilarious at times...

odienator said...

It only got funnier each time he showed up using his niggerstool.

Now you know where those insane old Southern remedies come from! Had they shown it once, it would have been a smirkable offense. But every 15 minutes, Norman Maine showed up to play footsie with some slave boy's stomach. How do you direct a scene like that? Where was that kid's Black Mama? How did James Mason feel about this? And why the hell did they feel the need to keep showing it?

There's one scene where the little boy tries to get out of being the NegrOttoman(TM), by pretending to be suffering from the rheumatiz', but Mason grabs him. "C'mere ya lyin' nigger!" and puts him under his feet. I'm gonna burn in Hell, but I spit my soda all over the floor.

You should go back and watch it again, seriously. We should host a Rocky Horror-esque screening of this shit. I'll provide Black My Buddy dolls and Lester ventriloquist dummies if people want to drain their rheumatiz', and every time somebody says "plez-yuhin da wenches," the entire audience has to have a swig of Henny. And when the German vidow voman sticks her hands down Ken Norton's pants, everybody yells "excuse me while I whip this out!"

I read that there's a laserdisc commentary by Fleischer and Perry King. I'd love to hear this shit. OH CRITERION COLLECTION...

Steven Boone said...

Criterion Collection? Now you're starting to sound like one a them crazy Slant boys.

But, yeah, why not? If they put Armageddon on a disc, why not Mandingo? And maybe Petey Wheatstraw, Disorderlies, J.D.'s Revenge...

Also, for BHM V, I dare you to take on a trashy slave flick you definitely do not find entertaining: Goodbye Uncle Tom.

Oh, and I always thought it was "Pure D. Shit."

odienator said...

No, I meant Criterion could find the laserdisc commentary and put it on a DVD! This damn sure ain't worth a Criterion release, unless they have a Criterion Bootleg Label.

I'll consider your challenge! And my Mom and my aunt always said "Pure T. Shit." I guess Pure Shit has numerous middle names!

Hal said...

Shouldn't DRUM have completed the double feature? :) DRUM is like DEATH WISH 3 in that it's very hard for me to believe they weren't intentionally making a comedy.

I haven't seen MANDINGO in quite a while, but I saw the sequel first, and I remember thinking that while MANDINGO is exploitation all the way, it wasn't nearly as campy as DRUM. I need to see it again.

Debbi Morgan actually had a scene with full nudity four years earlier in CRY UNCLE. Speaking of which, it's hard for me to believe the same guy directed CRY UNCLE, ROCKY and LEAN ON ME. :)

odienator said...

Hal, I didn't know about Cry Uncle! John Avildsen used to be a porn director, you know.

Gridlock'd is the second feature for Prez day because I wanted to showcase two things about U.S Presidents: Slavery and bureaucracy! I don't think Drum is on DVD, but I have seen it. I remember my Mom asking my cousin and I what we wanted to see at the movies, and I said I wanted to see Logan's Run but my cousin wanted to see DRUM. My Mom said "HELL NO!" to DRUM, so we wound up seeing my selection.

DRUM is indeed campier than Mandingo, but nobody's calling DRUM respectable or comparable to Toni Morrison!

Hal said...

DRUM is not on DVD. Of course that makes it a natural for my blog, but I haven't done it yet. I'm not even sure where to begin with DRUM...

Both DRUM and CRY UNCLE are available on Netflix Instant.

odienator said...

Thanks, Hal! I went to Netflix and looked up Cry Uncle, and right next to the description was one of those "similar movies you can watch instantly" boxes. One movie was A Dirty Shame, which I have seen, and the other was called Pervert! Pervert, Cry Uncle and A Dirty Shame sounds like a triple feature any 42nd street grindhouse marquee would be HONORED to display!