I Watched the Controversial Movie “Mandingo”

Mandingo. Watching the controversial 1975 film based on a book (and play, apparently) of the same name has left me disoriented.

I haven’t been this off-kilter after a movie since I made the bad decision to watch twenty minutes of a Lars Von Trier movie that was streaming, because I knew his reputation as a provocateur and wanted to know what that was all about.

I regretted it for days. Probably still do.

Was watching Mandingo as disorienting as that unfortunate experience? Sort of, but in a different way.

the first time I heard of mandingo

The first time I ever heard of Mandingo was as a reference in the comedy sketch movie Kentucky Fried Movie. There’s a mock exploitation movie trailer for Catholic High School Girls in Trouble with the tag line, “More offensive than Mandingo!”

It’s a funny line thanks to how it’s said, regardless if you get the reference. But I have spent the last several decades wondering how offensive Mandingo could be to act as a throw-away comedy punchline in the 1970s.

Despite being a hit, the great Roger Ebert decried the film as “racist trash, obscene in its manipulation of human beings and feelings, and excruciating to sit through…” His disgust was unquestionably heightened by the fact that, apparently, there were children in the audience. As an aside, whatever parent let a child see this movie should never get a “Best Mother/Father” mug.

It has a dismal 30% positive sentiment among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 65% positive rating as the audience score.

Anyone who knows me, or has read this blog, knows that I like to watch movies from across the spectrum. I even have some treasured favorites that buck the conventional opinions. I don’t shy from controversy and even will defend things that I think are misunderstood.

But I don’t think it’s misunderstood. I think it’s uncomfortable on the whole, horrific at parts, and some of the criticisms about its execution are justified.

My Reaction & Review

However, I think that it’s one of the most blisteringly honest condemnations of the pre-Civil War South that I’ve seen. There is no comfortable veneer of any “savior” figures in this, and there’s no happy ending available. There are no gentle characters who are secret abolitionists.

Everyone is a willing, and often enthusiastic, participant in the most shameful facet of American – and indeed, world – history.

There’s no escape valve for your emotions and there is some legitimate terror onscreen. If you feel anything, it’s largely disgust and remorse.

In short, it doesn’t give anyone in the audience anything to process except what a vile way of life was propagated by the plantation owners. The protagonist’s house borders on decrepit. The hypocrisy of each white character is revolting. The tragedy of the black characters is distressing.

And then there’s the exploitation. The sex scenes – and there are many – are bearable only thanks to the ability to skip ahead 10 seconds at a time. They can go by in a blur. I can only imagine being in a theater and watching with dawning shock that the scene isn’t cutting away when it should for the sake of being in good taste.

The brutality is difficult to watch specifically because you know it to be real. This is in no way sanitized or glorified.

And yes, there’s an inexplicable jump of nine months at one point for no reason other than to make the grim ending occur as quickly as possible.

The decision not to let the audience leave with the comfortable thought of “at least it’s gotten better” is definitely a conscious choice to erase and reset any of the diminishment that reading an historical account can give. There is no intellectual distance you can have

The mistake is not making it clear that this is a statement as condemnation; audiences sometimes need that blatant statement to feel better about what they just watched. It’s the same thing that cost Starship Troopers some points in the 1990s: it wasn’t clear that this wasn’t glorification but commentary.

Once you realize what it is, then it’s much clearer what it’s saying. Either that, or Dino De Laurentis was a monster for producing it. I think this is one of those inkblot moments where someone’s presumptions about something reveal their own default perceptions of others in the world.

Personally, I think it diminishes the achievements of the black actors and actresses who knew full well what they were trying to say.

But What Do I Rate It?

This still leaves me with a familiar dilemma. I don’t know what to rate this movie in terms of a “star” scale. It’s not a “zero star” movie by any means, and by some criteria it’s a “five star” movie because it forces the audience to experience something shocking and uncomfortable in a deliberate manner.

So it obviously achieves its goal (I think?), but I can’t in good conscience recommend it, despite the fact that some critics had a polar opposite reaction to Ebert’s.

Quentin Tarantino made clear reference to it in Django Unchained, a movie that acts as a similar statement maker all its own. There are even recognizable influences.

It’s also possible I’m overthinking it. But hey, that’s what I do.

I’ll be struggling with this one for awhile yet.