Monday, January 11, 2016

Formative Film 12: "Mandingo"

Dir: Richard Fleischer
Prod: Dino De Laurentiis, Ralph B. Serpe
Scr: Norman Wexler
Phot: Richard H. Kline
July 25, 1975

88 Drive In
8780 Rosemary St., Commerce City

There is no upside to this story. This remains not a guilty pleasure, but a guilty sorrow. We were underage, and wanted to see sex and violence; this movie was rated R. We easily circumvented the MPA’s ratings restrictions by going to the drive-in.

Jesus H. What a nightmare.

This film shows how dangerous it is, as a creative person, to have your heart in the right place. The mixed motives behind the project push it in a netherworld that is half empty-headed sentiment, half sniggering exploitation. Can you have your thematic cake and eat it too? Not if you are Mandingo.

It doesn’t serve to disembowel the movie in great detail. That would be as easy as skeet shooting. The film is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Kyle Onstott. This best-selling antebellum potboiler focused on the breeding of slaves; not surprising, as Onstott was a dog breeder who mused in interviews about the efficacy of selective breeding for humans. The 1961 Broadway adaptation (!) starred a young Dennis Hopper.

By the time the film was made, the first wave of blaxploitation films had swept the country; I’m sure it seemed to the filmmakers that the blatantly racist, sexist, exploitative story could somehow be turned inside-out so that it voiced the opposite sentiments, making it a kind of subversive liberal screed.

It didn’t work. Director Fleischer was nagged into doing it by De Laurentiis; James Mason needed to pay alimony. Ken Norton can’t act, and Susan George can’t stop. Plot lines snap, characters wander off. The most enlightened thoughts are placed into the mouths of the most grotesque characters, and the nastiest commonplaces inhabit the mouths of the supposed Southern aristocracy. Instead of stirring admiration for black struggle and contempt for white oppression in the viewer, one wishes that the whole kit and caboodle would explode, catch fire, and fall off a cliff. (Fortunately, the genre rules of Gothic melodrama dictate that as many principals are dead by final fadeout as is practicable.)

Read what producer Ralph Serpe had to say at the time:

“We're faithful to the story of the book but not the spirit. . . It's really a story of love. I hated that ending in the book where the guy boils the slave down and pours the soup over his wife's grave. I mean, we have the slave boiled but we cut out the part where he pours the soup on his grave. He just... pull away. And we know that tomorrow there's going to be a lot of trouble. It's really a very beautiful ending.” Yeah.

Let’s see, we also have murder, rape, adultery, miscegenation, alcoholism, a miscarriage, torture, a hanging, incest, infanticide, and extremely poor grammar. The temptation to show lots of skin of both colors being whipped, beaten, or sexually assaulted, proves unavoidable. As with most fits of movie self-righteousness, there’s as much spotlighting of the sins to be condemned as possible. And with this inhibition overcome, the usual stereotypes fall into silent place behind the action.

Sex between a white man and a black woman is beautiful and tender, and between and black man and a white woman is great, but wrong and forbidden. A woman’s sexuality is dangerous when unleashed, and a black man’s rage brings death to all, including a pitchfork to the abdomen whilst thrust into a cauldron full of boiling water. Mandingo ends up unconsciously reinforcing the crap it purports to oppose.

My reaction was disappointment. We were sneaking in to our first bona fide adult film, but the results weren’t titillating. The movie was a depressing, murky mess. When you’re 15 and a film makes you want to NOT have sex, that’s a pretty stellar accomplishment.

Ultimately, Mandingo was the first evidence for me that despicable films could and were being made. Not merely boring or incompetent ones, but ones who didn’t care what kind of shabby take on humanity they presented, as long as they had enough footage to satisfy the customer’s desire for a little surrogate sex, violence, and in this case racism. Films could make things worse.

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