Friday, 7 April 2017
The early 70s saw a lot of revisionist westerns made: films that savagely deconstructed the myths of the United States' early years, such as Soldier Blue or (godawful though it is) High Plains Drifter. Those years were also the height of the "blaxploitation" craze. Apparently producer Dino De Laurentiis saw these two flavours of film and decided that they'd be like chocolate and peanut butter if he smooshed them together.
Hence Mandingo, a film where the nearest thing we have to a protagonist is a racist, slave-owning rapist and murderer. This is Hammond Maxwell, who is presented as a cut above his fellow whites in the film because he isn't violent with his female slaves when he takes them into his bed. He even goes so far as to become so fond of one particular slave that he promises not to sell the child she's going to bear for him. What a swell guy. huh?
Hammond's father wants him to marry and have children with a white woman. Mulatto babies with slave women can't inherit and don't count. There are precious few marital options out there, and Hammond more or less settles on his cousin Blanche by default. Spoiler: it's not going to be a happy marriage.
Meanwhile, Hammond has also purchased a new slave, a pure-bred Mandingo named Mede, whom Hammond intends to train as a fist-fighter and use as a stud to sire more slaves. According to the film, you see, members of the Mandingo tribe are uncommonly strong and docile slaves.
And you can probably work out most of the terrible places the film is going to go from here. De Laurentiis was never one for subtlety or restraint in the films he produced, after all.
Oddly, that lack of finesse is simultaneously Mandingo's greatest strength and weakness. It's the latter because the histrionic and over the top dialogue and direction often undercut the impact of the horrible things being done, but it's also the former because it doesn't flinch from showing those horrible things ... and in particular from showing that at the end of the day, Hammond's kindness to his slaves is a very thing veneer over a well of hatred and anger than runs as deep as in him as it does in any of his peers.