... and it's a life sentence.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Court is now in session...
We present the first exhibit in evidence... MANDINGO.
It's kinda like shooting fish in a barrel to lead this series off with this title, which is far more notorious than seen, at this point. Shawn Edwards, a critic in Kansas City had this as part of his 'Soul Cinema' series at the Mainstreet Alamo Drafthouse, and it tied in perfectly with my intent - unfortunately, weather scrubbed my trip into seeing this bigscreen (and an actual film print), so out came the DVD copy for another look.
Quite a bit has already been written about the film, which has undergone a push towards critical rediscovery and reappraisal (among the first being Dennis Cozzalio of SERGIO LEONE AND THE INFIELD FLY RULE, and NOT COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU). Although the perception of the film, as lurid, trashy button-pushing melodrama that embarrassed everyone involved is not too far off the mark, the fact is that MANDINGO was a big hit for the studio and Dino DeLaurentiis at the time of its release. Critical reception to the film was very bad in the U.S. (it fared better with critics overseas), which caused the studio to have issues with it after it was made. There was no embarrassment on the part of the filmmakers, who took the subject very seriously.
Yes, the movie IS trashy melodrama, like the book that it's based on... there's no way around that. But the reason why the book became such a sensation (spawning ghost-written sequels, and an unsuccessful adaptation on Broadway) was that amidst all the melodrama and the sex, there was also the presence of what I term, "the stink of Truth". The intent of the author, Kyle Onstatt, might have indeed been to just write a trashy novel, but he was born at a time (1887 - MANDINGO was published when he was in his 70's!) when slavery's end was just a generation behind, but direct survivors were still around... and a good portion of the most outrageous behavior depicted has indeed been verified by accounts.
Even by the 70's, depiction of that time in the Black American experience was pretty limited on-screen, at least in America - foreign producers did finance the first hard looks at that period, and you may well notice the name of MANDINGO's producer... but this was, for an American studio, really the first time to tackle such a subject as a major motion picture. And for most of the audience, to see depicted explicitly the punishment of slaves, black children used as furniture, the slaveowner sleeping with his female slaves, was probably just too much to take, except as seen through the eyes of 'camp'. Of course, the bit that EVERYONE remembers who watches the movie is the coupling of slave owner wife Susan George with Ken Norton's title character.
But past all the luridness and sexual hijinks depicted (which were actually toned down for the film, believe it or not), is the hypocrisy that is present at the core of slavery, which the movie does confront unflinchingly; and that may be the real reason why this film gets under the skin of so many - there's no sentimental look at the Old South present here, only the goings on of what can happen when one group of people treat another group like property.
Olive Films finally released MANDINGO on DVD a few years ago, remastered but with no additional material for context... for that, you can refer to Paul Talbot's MONDO MANDINGO, a thorough look at the entire world of MANDINGO, from book to movie - and for a more direct comparison of book to film, blogger Greg Bunche took the plunge, scrounged up a copy of the book and tackled the bastard like a man.