ByPaul Donovan, writer at
A jerk with an opinion. An explorer of transgressive cinema. See more things about movies at
Paul Donovan

Every now and then you see an old movie and wonder, "Now, how in the hell did this even get made?" This is one of those movies...

1. In 1957 a guy named Kyle Onstott wrote a book named Mandingo, about slave breeding in the antebellum South. It was very controversial. Some found it offensive, especially since Onstott was white. Some - including some black writers and thinkers - thought the book was great, and very truthful.

But everybody agreed it was full of violence, cruelty and sex.

The book was a huge bestseller, so of course it was turned into a movie in 1975.

2. The term "Mandingo" comes from "Mandinka", which were a large ethnic group from West Africa (if you've see Roots, the character of Kunta Kinte was a Mandinka). "Mandingo" became the term for the stereotype that black slaves were basically animals - they were very strong, and very sexual (Quentin Tarantino used this stereotype in his 2012 movie Django Unchained.)

3. The movie centers on a plantation called Falconhurst. The plantation owner, Warren, believes that real money isn't in selling cotton, it's in selling slaves. So while he doesn't beat his slaves too much (unless they learn how to read), he treats them like livestock. He makes his slaves have sex with other, and then sells the children (which are always called "suckers").

4. Warren lives with his son Hammond, who is not married. Warren wants grandchildren, but Hammond doesn't like white women - he only likes to have sex with the black slave girls. Hammond is sent off and forced to marry his cousin, Blanche. Hammond returns to Falconhurst with Blanche and two slaves - Ellen (who Hammond has fallen in love with) and Mede, a strong mandingo buck who Hammond wants to train to be a fighter. Mede must decide whether he plays the white man's game, or take the side of the slaves.

5. There are a couple of times that the movie comes close to making some valuable commentary - not only Mede's awkward position on the plantation, but in a parallel plot, Hammond's love affair with the slave Ellen makes him wonder if black people really are human, too. However, the movie isn't very interested in exploring those issues; it's really just a sordid tale of sex, incest, violence, and death. I highly doubt the movie would be made today. It's too politically incorrect.

6. The sexism portrayed in the movie is just as bad as the racism. The only people that have any control over things are white men. Women are punished for doing the same things that are considered normal for men.

7. This was a real Hollywood movie: the cast was well-known in the 70's: James Mason and heartthrob Perry King played Warren and Hammond. Susan George played Blanche. Mede was played by Ken Norton, the professional boxer that beat Muhammad Ali two years before this movie came out.

And it was directed by Richard Fleischer, who also made Soylent Green and The Jazz Singer.

8. Taking into account the above points, I strongly suspect that the movie was made as a hidden spoof of slavery. The white people are not much more educated than the slaves they rule. More than that, they are all so dysfunctional that you feel extra sorry for the slaves - not only for their inhumane conditions, but also because they have to put up with such crazy and stupid "owners" (Warren believes he can cure his sore muscles by resting his feet on the stomach of a slave). The slaves are by far the smartest and most clear-headed people in the movie.

9. The laughable and lurid script has some great quotable lines, like "You loony black bastard!" The acting ranges from "mediocre" to "so bad that the scenery gets eaten". But it does give a glimpse into a facet of slavery economics that I haven't heard much about.

And if you are willing to dive below the film's trashy surface, I think you will find it to be a small, sly, strange gem from America's past.

What do you think? Trash or treasure? Let us know!


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