Set on a slave plantation in the Deep South, Mandingo is a sordid wallow in depravity.
Warren Maxwell (James Mason), the ageing owner of the 19th-century plantation, ‘Falconhurst’, puts on the airs of a courtly gentleman but is in fact a brutal, superstitious creature at heart.
Early on, he’s convinced that the best cure for his persistent “rheumatis” is to sleep with his feet pressed against a naked slave child, allowing the foul humours to drain into the boy’s stomach.
Intent on securing the future of his name, Maxwell is eager to marry off his son, Hammond (Perry King), who shows more interest in deflowering female slaves than wooing white women.
Hammond agrees to wed wealthy cousin Blanche (Susan George), reviving the family’s fortunes and its hopes for an heir. But when he discovers on their wedding night that Blanche isn’t a virgin, he vows never to sleep with her again. It doesn’t help when he learns that the culprit is her own brother.
Hammond finds solace in the arms of prize slave and “bed wench” Ellen (Brenda Sykes) while his wife turns to Mede (Ken Norton) – a newly acquired slave prized for his fighting ability and robust physique – after her increasingly desperate entreaties meet only silence
Norton, a former prizefighter, dwarfs George’s tiny frame, but her wild eyes and gnashing teeth more than make up the difference.
Contemporary critics damned Mandingo as high-toned trash, a ruthless exploitation of racial stereotypes memorably parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit with O.J. Simpson filling Norton’s role.
But the movie’s offences are hardly unintentional. Seen as a camp classic, Mandingo‘s excesses seem risible. But viewed with fresh eyes, it can credibly be seen as a revisionist history of a particularly savage kind.
Stanley J. Reyes