There have been many of films over times that have dealt with the issues of slavery in America and all over the world. I have to admit though that not one of them did it in the way that "Mandingo" does though. This movie is certainly a one of a kind film since it decides to take a look at slavery in one of the most exploitive and un-redeeming ways I've ever seen. It's a movie that's guaranteed to offend regardless of your background and there were even times during the film that I was pretty shocked at to what was being displayed on screen.
"Mandingo" is the story of a Louisiana plantation and the people that live and operate on it. It features a grizzled old slave owner and his son, showing their day to day exploits on the plantation. This of course means that they are fooling around with the female slaves, using young black children as foot rests, and just about anything else that you could think of that could possibly offend someone. Young Hammond always listens to his father when it comes to slaves, and his father told him plenty of times that every slave owner wants their own "Mandingo". They don't really get into what that is exactly that is but upon doing research I've come to find that's a term for the Mandika people of West Africa, so it has just about nothing to do with the plot of the film. One day Hammond is at a slave auction and picks up a very big and very strong young man because he can fight. He gets the idea to make him into a prize fighter in the process, but young Hammond's wife (who is actually his cousin) has other ideas for the virile slave.
The acting in the film is actually solid to be perfectly honest. I knew going into it that former heavyweight boxer Ken Norton actually played the "Mandingo" role in the movie as Mede, but the acting job that he did was better than expected. It's going to come off as wooden to some, but I didn't think he was bad at all playing the bad ass slave that would actually kill for his master. It's a brutal role to play and I actually give Norton credit to play something that not many people would have. It couldn't have been a great time on set either as I'm sure there were probably a lot of actors uncomfortable with what they had to do in the film. Also there's a strong performance by James Mason as Hammond Maxwell the young slave owner. Susan George (Straw Dogs) also shows up as Blanche Maxwell and plays a pretty good role considering some of the things they were asking of her were pretty extreme at times too.
To be perfectly honest I knew what I was getting into going into the movie, just not as much as I expected. The film is downright vicious in its attempt to be demeaning, cruel, and does it in quite the unflinching manner. In most films of this nature they usually setup the cruel parts to have the person in the film overcome insurmountable odds to achieve freedom, revenge, or something in that vein. But in "Mandingo" there's nothing of the sort. It's just straight up sexploitation involving black and white participants as well as showing scene after scene of blacks being degraded. There is no positive message in the film whatsoever and I could imagine just how this would have played to audiences back in 1975.
The most surprising film of this nature is how the production came to be. This isn't your typical low grade exploitation or B-movie. It's a bigger budgeted affair bankrolled by Paramount Pictures with Dino De Laurentiis producing. De Laurentiis is known for producing such films as "Hannibal", "Maximum Overdrive", "Drum" (the follow up to "Mandingo"), and "Serpico". This is hardly something you'd see bankrolled by a big studio or anyone involved in major films, but such was the case in 1975.
Overall I couldn't really recommend "Mandingo" to a lot of people simply for the fact that it's not going to be everyone's type of movie. It's a very dark and pathetic look at the times of slavery and probably won't win any awards for its truthfulness. I found it to be an incredibly interesting piece of exploitation filmmaking that honestly does have a place in the subgenre even if it is a small one. It's an attempt by a major studio to make a exploitation film that's honestly as brutal and offensive as I've seen (which is probably only second to the Jacopetti and Prosperi film "Goodbye Uncle Tom").
Rating - ***