From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
“Racist trash, obscene… this is a film that I felt soiled by.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago-Sun Times; July 25, 1975.
In the summer of '75, Mandingo, Paramount Pictures' big budget film adaption of the ten million-selling 1957 novel "Mandingo" by Kyle Onstott, flickered across movie screens leaving audiences dazed and film critics profoundly disturbed.
Arguably Hollywood’s first large scale unapologetic “exploitation” feature, Mandingo dealt with the fact-based but under-examined horrors of the American slave system and the complicated interpersonal relationships that it fostered. Pre-dating the week-long television event “Roots” by a full two years, Mandingo, inverted Hollywood’s antiseptic vision of Southern plantation life (most famously presented in “Gone With The Wind”) and turned everything previously presented about the good ‘ole South’ upside down.
James Mason is chillingly effective as decrepit Falconhurst plantation owner Warren Maxwell. Foul mouthed, hostile, racist and terribly (sometimes humorously) ignorant, Mason presents a fascinating and disturbing portrait of a sick man (he’s got “rumatiz”) desperate to validate both his fading life and the many despicable choices he’s made. Perry King, too, is superb as Hammond, Maxwell’s handsome, conflicted, curiously shy son. King—who is as comfortable with full-frontal nudity as he is with shedding tears of frustration—succinctly conveys the multi-layered and duplicitous roles sensitive whites (especially males) had to play during a very insensitive time.
And the rest of Mandingo’s cast is just as good. There’s Hammond’s new bride (his first cousin!) Blanche (Susan George), an unfortunate creature who is the survivor of a sexual relationship with her brother; Blanche’s antithesis Ellen (Brenda Sykes), Hammond’s soft, sincere, sane and sober black “bed wench”; the titular Mandingo /Meade, prizefighter Ken Norton embodying the persona of a man with select skills—in the ring and in the bedroom; Lillian Hayman as Lucrezia, Falconhurst’s (typically) rotund, knows-what’s-really-going-on Mammy, Richard Ward as Agamemnon, a faithful (for a time at least!) servant who objects to Meade’s fighting “like a black dog,” and Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Cicero, a contemporary-minded rebel rouser who, just before he is murdered, delivers a classic blaxploitation-era sound bite: “kiss my black ass!”
Intentionally sensational, lush, pulpy, majestic, with deft direction, beautiful lighting, inventive photography, a sweeping musical score (including a theme song by soul legend Muddy Waters) and true to life costumes (and a great lack of them), Mandingo is a groaning buffet of violence, rape, hangings, beatings, scoldings, adultery, poisoning, mutilations, human auctions, sex slaves, miscegenation, incest, blackmail, child abuse, sadomasochism, fetishism, infanticide, and “death matches.”
Critic Roger Ebert called it right: Mandingo is, indeed, “obscene”; but it’s obscene in the way that a lethal car crash is obscene: regardless of whether you look or not, it still happened.