Considering that Richard Fleischer's 1955 film Violent Saturday made small-town America look like a roiling cesspit, it's unsurprising that his 1975 feature Mandingo, set on a slave plantation in the Deep South, is a sordid wallow in antebellum depravity. Like the crumbling mansion at its center, Mandingo is a rotting remnant of the old South's glory days: It's Gone With The Wind gone rancid. Plantation owner James Mason puts on the airs of a courtly gentleman, but he's 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 humors to drain into the boy's stomach.
Intent on securing the future of his name, Mason is eager to marry off his son, Perry King, who shows more interest in deflowering female slaves than wooing white women. King agrees to wed wealthy cousin Susan George, reviving the family's fortunes and its hopes for an heir. But when King discovers on their wedding night that George 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. King finds solace in the arms of prize slave Brenda Sykes, while his wife, after her increasingly desperate entreaties meet only silence, turns to Ken Norton, a newly acquired slave prized for his fighting ability and robust physique. Norton, a former prize fighter, 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 offenses are hardly unintentional. Seen as a camp classic, Mandingo's every excess seems risible. But viewed with fresh eyes, it can credibly be seen as revisionist history of a particularly savage kind.
That doesn't necessarily make it easier to sit through. Without the refuge of laughter, the bloody brawl where Norton proves his worth is almost unwatchable, and George's unhinged ravings come close to madness. But there's no reason why a movie on such a foul subject should be easy on the eyes. Mandingo has moments of irredeemable overkill, particularly its climax, when the same character is shot, scalded, and stabbed with a pitchfork like some unkillable horror-movie fiend. But its pulp polemics still strike a chord 30-odd years later, which is more than enough to revisit Mandingo's status as the punchline to an obscure joke.
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