Reviewed by Mike Emery, Fri., Dec. 17, 1999
MandingoD: Richard Fleischer (1975); with James Mason, Ken Norton, Perry King, Susan George, Brenda Sykes, Richard Ward, Lillian Hayman.
This is one of the most tasteless epics of all time, but it's still imbedded in a lot of people's minds. One reason may be the fact that it was censured by the Catholic church upon its release. Another may be the classic Saturday Night Live parody, which featured host O.J. Simpson as the title character. Whatever the case, this overly long Southern tale (based on a book and a play) succeeds only as a reminder of the brutality endured by black slaves. James Mason stars as plantation owner, Maxwell. He's a bitter old coot who insists on having a slave boy under his feet at all times (in a stupid attempt to rid himself of rheumatism). His son, Hammond (King), is the horny heir to his fortune and spends much of his time bedding slave girls. When he finally takes a white bride, the conniving Blanche (George, in a terrible performance), he can't bring himself to truly love her. Instead, he falls for Ellen (Sykes), a beautiful slave girl. When he's not shuffling between his wife and mistress, Hammond spends time with his fighting Mandingo slave, Mede (Norton, in a role once intended for Muhammad Ali). Aside from being used as a fighter, Mede is also employed to return runaways, further complicating his self-identity and his soul. Lots of nudity, graphic violence, and whippings. Plus, characters are boiled alive, pitchforked, and hung. Certainly not Gone With the Wind (but probably a lot more honest), this is a deeply depressing film. The main problem is that shock value is the centerpiece, so the theme of slavery is just a vehicle for horrific gore and interracial sex. Oddly enough, a sequel, Drum, followed and narrowly avoided an X rating. Both films are deplorable, even for trash hounds.