Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Incest, bloody fights, hangings, sex, rape, whippings, miscarriage, alcohol, prostitutes, a man boiled alive, sexual repression, adultery, slave rebellion, depravity, decadence, cruelty, racism, decaying old mansions, mint juleps.

Mandingo (1975) is the obverse of Gone with the Wind (1939). In one Southern plantation family it embeds the whole of the institution of slavery, both as it was and as people believe it was. Mandingo serves as antidote to decades of films that extol the virtues of the Old South and ignore the dark realities of slavery. Yet as a portrait of history, it is no more reliable and accurate than the views it seeks to correct. The real intent of Mandingo is not corrective. It is prurient, sensationalist, and exploitative. Within a two-hour span, it manages to include every fact and myth imaginable about slavery and the Old South. Who knows what to believe when this film is over?

Mandingo presents a world in which plantation owners regard slaves as animals without souls. They discuss slaves as they would discuss sheep or cattle. They talk about how to breed slaves—the woman are called "breeders." Slave children are "suckers." They execute slaves who run away too often and poison those too old to work. The white male owners exercise total control over the lives and bodies of slaves. They have sex with the women whenever they like, and in fact Hammond's father (played by James Mason) explains to a young slave girl that she should feel honored to have her first sexual experience with her owner's son: "It's Master's duty to pleasure the wenches first time!" Men have "bed wenches" who give them the kind of sex their white wives are supposedly too frail and innocent to offer. Yet white women are shown as sexually repressed too.

Falconhurst is the plantation where much of the film occurs. It is located in Louisiana, somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans. Compared to other plantations, it's a pretty run-down affair, and perhaps this is supposed to imply that the Maxwells are an exception to the mythic Southern rule of leisure and gentility and beauty. Mrs. Maxwell died years before, and the place has lacked a mistress as a result. The implication is that when a new young mistress comes on the scene, she will motivate Hammond and his father to fix the place up. To do that, they will need money, and to get money they will have to sell slaves, which they never hesitate to do.

Hammond Maxwell, the son at Falconhurst, the plantation in this film, has a game leg. He is portrayed as a kind exception to the norm among slave owners. He dislikes the mistreatment of slaves. He truly loves the slave girl Blanche who becomes his "bed wench" after he buys her in New Orleans. He tells her that she will always belong to him, that no one can take her away from him. He promises that when their child grows up he will set him free. He disapproves when his cousin spanks the slave girl he has been given by a host to spend the night with. He treasures and respects Mede, the husky male slave he buys in New Orleans and who proves to be a vigorous fighter. He doesn't like to see families broken up at slave auctions. Despite all these exceptions, Hammond believes in slavery, is upset when he discovers that one of the house slaves can read, happily leads slaves off to be sold in Memphis, is enraged to the point of madness when he discovers that his wife has had sex with and become pregnant by Mede (she does this to get revenge on her husband and his bed-wench), whom he does not hesitate to murder.

Not surprisingly, slaves in the film lead a double-life. They have no choice but to accept the sexual exploitation the women suffer. They are subservient in front of whites, and more assertive, more "normal" among themselves. Out of hearing of the whites, they argue with each other as to how subservient they should be. Moke in particular is accused of trying to ingratiate himself to Hammond for his willing participation in arranged fights. He is accused by another slave, the rebellious Cicero, of turning against his "black brother." On the other hand, no one blames Blanche for loving Hammond. The movie doesn't explicitly address the fact that she has no choice but to submit to him. He tells her that he will leave her alone if that is what she wants--she responds that she wants to give him pleasure. That Hammond doesn't want to force Blanche to have sex does not mitigate the fact that as her owner he can do with her as he likes—he has the power, whether or not he uses it.

Mandingo pays much attention to racial and sexual double standards among white characters. Hammond becomes upset on his wedding night when he discovers that his wife has already had sex—she is not a virgin (at the age of 13, she later tells him, she had sex with her brother). Yet Hammond himself has been having sex with black women for years. He tells his wife, before they have sex for the first time, that he does not know how to behave with a white woman—he has only been with black women. His father has warned him that white women don't like sex and won't do for their husbands what black women are willing to do. (Black women are invariably referred to as "wenches.") In the world of Mandingo, it is accepted and expected that white men will have sex with prostitutes and with black women, that black women will have sex with the white men who own them, but that white women will have sex (infrequently) only with their husbands and only after marriage. Hammond's father tells him that he will need his "bed wench" after he marries because the black woman will relieve the white wife of having to "submit." White women, of course, cannot have sex with black men.

The primary white woman in the film is Blanche, Hammond's cousin, whom his father more or less arranges for him to marry. Once he discovers she is not a virgin, he wants nothing to do with her. She grows increasingly frustrated, especially as he continues to spend time with Blanche. At one point, while Hammond is away, she whips Blanche and pushes her down the stairs, resulting in the loss of the child Blanche is carrying. Ultimately, she forces Mede to have sex with her by telling him that if he refuses she will tell Hammond that he raped her. This is her way of getting revenge on Hammond.

At the end of the film, Hammond is forced to confront the fact that whether or not he has been a less abusive and oppressive slave master than others, he is still a slave master and capable of committing all the atrocities the role implies. Just before Hammond shoots him, Mede tells him, "I thought you was better than the white man, Masta. But you is just white!"

One problem with this film (among the many) is historical accuracy. I do not doubt that in the abstract everything this film argues about slavery is true—that it places white owners in a position of total control over the slaves they owned. Slaves had no freedom, no control over their own lives. Many were mistreated and suffered horribly. Many slave owners took advantage of their position and had sex with and children by their female slaves. There is no doubt that slavery dehumanized both the owners and the enslaved. But did all slave-owners--or even most of them--behave as the Maxwells behave in this film? Is there any evidence that slave owners openly bragged about their relationships and offspring with slave women? Would their wives have tolerated such discussion? Would gentlemanly rules of decorum have permitted such discussion? We have ample historical evidence to document that many slave owners did sleep with their slaves, including the DNA evidence that shows Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemming, whom he may or may not have loved, and who may or may not have loved him. But Jefferson left no written comments on this relationship. There is ample evidence of such relationships throughout the slave-owning South. But to what extent is Mandingo a representative portrait of the peculiar institution? And how many white women in the 1840s—the wives of plantation owners—would try to seduce male slaves? There is certainly no evidence this was a common occurrence. Once again, when a film attempts to portray history or to correct inaccurate portrayals of history, should there be an obligation to portray fact? Or should filmmakers have license to give any version of events they want, in order to serve a particular political bias or to satisfy the sensationalist desires of their audience? Any discussion of the weaknesses and flaws in this film—the excessive melodrama, the unremarkable plot, the poor acting—must include the issue of historical inauthenticity.

Mandingo is beautifully filmed. The music is written by Maurice Jarré. The music is particularly tender in the scenes between Blanche and Hammond, suggesting that what we are seeing is a romantic relationship between two lovers--an oversimplification and distortion of the true situation. Music and visual beauty simply contribute to the overall distortions that the film presents.


The Rush Blog said...

But did all slave-owners--or even most of them--behave as the Maxwells behave in this film? Is there any evidence that slave owners openly bragged about their relationships and offspring with slave women? Would their wives have tolerated such discussion?

The movie is NOT claiming that all slaveowners openly bragged about sleeping with their slave women. But you seem to suggest that not one single slaveowner ever did. How do you know? Are you assuming that every single male slave owner was an Ashley Wilkes?

Have you ever heard of a South Carolina politician named James Henry Hammond?

The Rush Blog said...

The movie never claimed that all slave owners behaved just as Warren Maxwell did. But can you prove that no slave owner ever behaved like he did? Can you?

Hugh Ruppersburg said...

I do see the film as making a generalization in its representation of slaveholders. And as a generalization it is not historically accurate. As a portrait of a single slave owner, or of a group of slave owners, it is undoubtedly accurate. As a film that shows slavery as a dehumanizing, debasing institution, it is accurate. Clearly there were slaveholders similar to Maxwell. I didn't intend my comments to suggest otherwise, or to suggest that no slaveowners slept with their slaves. If my comments suggest that, I will have to revise.