When this deeply strange tale of cruelty and interracial sexual exploitation on a pre-Civil War Southern plantation directed by Richard Fleischer (“Soylent Green,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas”) was released in 1975, it was greeted with hoots of derision and ridiculed as cheaply sensational – and possibly racist – not only by critics, but on a raucous “Saturday Night Live” skit. More recently, writers like the outstanding cinephile blogger Dennis Cozzalio have been urging a critical reappraisal. While I admit this attempt at a sort of satirical tragedy has been misunderstood to a degree, “misunderstood” is not the same thing as “good.”
“Mandingo” stars aging screen legend James Mason as Warren Maxwell, a hateful Southern patriarch. His relatively sensitive son, Hammond (Perry King), runs into deep trouble when he takes on a new wife (Susan George) while practicing the prerogatives of a Southern “gentleman” and keeping a slave mistress (Brenda Sykes). Meanwhile, he finds himself feeling somewhat protective toward Mede (boxer Ken Norton), a fighter he has bought in much the same way a man of that time might have purchased a fighting cock. I almost wrote “fighting dog” but the double meaning here seems correct. It is the dehumanizing effects of slavery that is the laudable focus of “Mandingo,” but sensationalized 70s-style sex is the primary vehicle and selling point. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Unfortunately, Fleischer’s film is somewhat crude stylistically, but also too polite in telling its brutal story. Worse, it’s badly marred by some weak acting, not only from acting novice Norton, but also by a shockingly mannered and subpar performance from the usually superb, British-born Mason. Although the melodrama events make for a compelling final half-hour, it’s a long, long road getting there.