Pros: Acting; screenplay; cinematography; music.
Cons: Raw, realistic depiction of slavery; sexuality; violence.
When Quentin Tarantino referred to Mandingo in the context of being the Hollywood version of an exploitation movie, noting that it and Showgirls were the only two instances when a major studio produced a big-budget exploitation movie, many took it to mean that the movie was over-the-top, funny, campy, that sort of thing, and not understanding why he would say this after watching the film. The reason that Mandingo is a big-budget exploitation movie is because it is. Exploitation movies aren't necessarily funny, but that while they may be low-budget and don't have the big stars, the plot contains elements that distributors can exploit in their posters and advertising. Sex! Violence! Degradation! This is one of those movies...except with a big budget and huge stars. This is an exploitation movie because of the book it was based on, a pulp novel by Kyle Onsott, which titillated its readers with suggestions of master-and-slave intercourse, and the fact that the film doesn't gloss over slavery like many Hollywood productions.
Warren Maxwell (James Mason) buys and breeds slaves, while his son, Hammond (Perry King) gets down with the "wenches," fathering a number of "suckers." Warren demands that Hammond marry and father him a white grandchild. While in New Orleans, Hammond buys a Mandingo slave, Mede (Ken Norton) and pops the question to cousin Blanche (Susan George), in addition to buying a bedwench, Ellen (Brenda Sykes). When Hammond learns that Blanche isn't a virgin, he storms off to the local whorehouse, but is uninterested in any of the white whores. When Mede gets into a fight with the Madame's slave and wins, Hammond decides to train him as a prize fighter. When Blanche learns that Ellen has been impregnated by Hammond, she hits the alcohol--hard. Calling for Ellen, Blanche whips her and knocks her down the stairs, causing a miscarriage. Warren tells Ellen that if she tells Hammond the truth, he will sell her off. When Hammond returns home, he gives Blanche and Ellen jewelry from the same material, angering Blanche to the point where she decides to seduce Mede and bear his child to spite Hammond.
From the opening scenes, audiences know coming in that this is a very different kind of movie. Paul Benedict (best known for his role as Bentley on The Jeffersons) plays a prospective buyer who tells a slave to pull his pants down and proceeds to examine him for hemorrhoids, cupping his testicles as if he were a racehorse. Cousin Charles likes to engage in psuedo-S&M with the slaves he beds, and we soon learn that he's the one who popped his sister's cherry. Mandingo is a bit more realistic in tone in its portrayal of slavery than many of the films that had preceded it. Slavery was not fun and blacks were never treated on the same level as family members. The slave owners in this film refuse to teach blacks to read. When they learn on their own, Warren suggests having one of the slave's eyes cut out, while Hammond instead hangs the slave upside down, naked, and has him beaten on the butt until he bleeds. Blacks are also told that they have no souls, and Warren uses a black child as a footstool so that his rheumatism will flow out into him. When abolitionists are brought up in a dinner conversation, Warren angrily insists that slavery is God's will, and doesn't even regard blacks as human.
Families are separated and treated with no compassion in their regard. Bred like cattle, slaves are auctioned off to the highest bidder, females forced to walk around topless. A German women trying to bid on Mede sticks her hand inside his shorts to inspect his privates. Hammond immediately tries to outbid her, suspecting that she wants him for her own sexual pleasure, because he thinks that it's fine for white slavemasters to lay down with black 'wenches,' but not for white women to do the same with black 'bucks'. When Blanche beds down with Mede, Hammond goes for the shotgun and a boiling pot previously used to harden Mede up for the fights. The reason that Mandingo is not generally considered an exploitation film is that it didn't have the luck of being made for a few thousand dollars in Jersey under the production of Roger Corman and starring a cast featuring Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. (Grier, however, does appear in the sequel, Drum). Ken Norton ends up giving the best performance in the film, mostly mute, giving a strong performance through his expressions. Sykes and George turn in strong performances, as do Mason and King. The cinematography is excellent, with some truly well-composed shots and great lighting. Mandingo is no doubt an exploitation movie, but it's a great exploitation movie, and certainly a lot more entertaining than Gone With The Wind.
Mandingo makes its debut on DVD through Legend Films, one of several releases of long-out of print and neglected films licensed for distribution by Paramount Pictures. The transfer is as good as it can be, complimenting the cinematography well. Although a commentary or documentary on the film would be appreciated, there are no extras. Not even a theatrical trailer. The film appears to be completely uncensored.