By Rodney Wallis
Rodney Wallis is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Australia. His thesis focuses on the various ways in which Hollywood has mobilised the image of Israel for the purpose of articulating contemporaneous conceptions of American national identity. His other interests include cinematic representations of American history and American mythology.
[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]
When it was released in 1975 Richard Fleischer’s slave narrative Mandingo was met by almost universal disdain from critics. For instance, Leonard Maltin labelled it a “Trashy potboiler that will appeal only to the S & M crowd.” Similarly, the normally sober and insightful Roger Ebert proclaimed that “Mandingo” is racist trash, obscene in its manipulation of human beings and feelings, and excruciating to sit through.”
However, years after the film’s release there emerged something of a minor campaign to rehabilitate the film’s reputation, with the most notable championing of the film’s artistic merits coming from Robin Wood, and the late Andrew Britton. Wood, who published his defense of the film in 1998, argued, “No film is more urgently in need of reevaluation than Mandingo.” Wood’s assertion was premised on the notion that, even in the light of the early-to-mid-90s emergence of black directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers, and general popularization of African-American ghetto cinema, Mandingo was still “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood.”
Today, I will posit that, more than 15 years after Wood published his own valorisation of the film, Mandingo is still in urgent need of reevaluation. In this instance it is due to the recent emergence of a wave of major films which either directly represent or tangentially allude to slavery – films such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) – and what I would argue is Mandingo’s status as a more profound and insightful reflection on the African-American historical experience.
Whilst each of the aforementioned films achieved a certain degree of commercial and critical success, the jewel in the crown that is contemporary slave cinema is undoubtedly 12 Years a Slave, which claimed the Oscar for Best Picture, and taking in over 187 million at the box office. Moreover, 12 Years a Slave was roundly acclaimed by the critical press, with many reviewers echoing the feelings of Tomris Laffly, who wrote in Film International Journal that it was “the most unforgiving and crucial account of this horrific era that I have witnessed onscreen.”
When I first saw 12 Years a Slave I was somewhat disturbed by both the film’s ‘happy ending’, wherein the protagonist is freed from bondage via the intervention of a very Christ-like Brad Pitt, and subsequently returns to a life of relative luxury in the North – a sequence of events that is quite obviously not an accurate reflection of the historical unfolding of the slavery narrative. Moreover, I was left unsatisfied with the representation of the film’s white characters, which seemed to fit into only 2 categories – sadistic southern slave-owners or virtuous Christ-like redeemers. In so doing, the film risks reducing slavery into little more than the basis for contemporary melodrama, and in turn glossing over the absolute centrality of slavery to Southern society during that era, and how it wasn’t just a practise engaged in by evil men. However, I eventually read the book and discovered that the film was actually extremely faithful to the original story, and I developed a greater appreciation of the film. Where 12 Years a Slave is particularly successful is in its uncompromising depiction of the de-humanising brutality that lay at the heart of slavery, and this can be understood as a result not only of the film’s fidelity to Solomon Northups’ harrowing account of his kidnapping and subsequent decade-long experience as a slave, but also McQueen’s unrelenting directorial style.
However, at risk of critiquing a film for what it is not rather than what it is, the most unforgiving and most crucial cinematic rendering of slavery must, in my opinion, do more than remind us of how horrible the whole thing was. Moreover, it cannot come to a close with what can rightfully be called a ‘happy ending’, which we similarly saw in the whitewashed history proffered by Spielberg’s Lincoln, or the glorious revenge-fantasy that was Django Unchained. As we are today being reminded by names like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, and cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, the story of slavery has no happy ending, even some 150 years after its abolition. Its ramifications are profound and far-reaching, and the status of 12 Years a Slave as a genuinely faithful reproduction of a non-fiction historical text – about an individual, it must be said, whose experience is wholly dissimilar to that of the vast majority of slaves who ever toiled on the plantations of the South – renders it essentially incapable of examining these ramifications. As Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who, in the pursuit of truth, frequently blurs the line that exists between fact and fiction, once declared, “Facts do not constitute the truth. There is a deeper stratum.” To understand the deeper stratum of the legacy of slavery in the United States, we must look not to facts, but to the fiction that is Mandingo.
The most fascinating aspects of Mandingo, in terms of its status as a profound commentary on the African-American historical experience is, firstly, its conscious and continuous deployment of irony as a means of revealing the inherent contradictions that constituted the unstable foundations that Southern society was founded upon. Furthermore – and I think that this is where the film is at its most effective – is its total commodification of black bodies positioning of the spectacularised black body as, to borrow a phrase from Linda Williams, “the battleground between fear and desire.” This is a notion that gave way to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the Ku Klux Klan, and which is a concept that to this day is central to mainstream constructions of black identity, and is explicitly played out in avenues such as professional sports, the news media (wherein black males are generally portrayed as criminals), other mediated cultures such as popular music and TV and film (all of which shamelessly commodify thug culture and black physicality), and also porn.
 Quoted in Robin Wood, “’Mandingo’: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266.
 Wood, “’Mandingo’: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” 265-282.
 Andrew Britton, “Mandingo (1976),” in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Keith Barry Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), 241-261.
 Wood, “’Mandingo’: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” 265.
 Ibid., 267.
 Tomris Laffly, “12 Years a Slave,” Film International Journal 116, no. 11 (2013): 132-134.
 James Camp, “In conversation with Werner Herzog: ‘Facts do not constitute truth’,” September 7, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/sep/07/werner-herzog-facts-do-not-constitute-truth (accessed May 20, 2013).
 Linda Williams, “Pornography, Exploitation, and Interracial Lust,” in Porn Studies, ed. Linda Williams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 298.
Britton, Andrew, “Mandingo (1976),” in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Keith Barry Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), 241-261.
Camp, James, “In conversation with Werner Herzog: ‘Facts do not constitute truth’,” September 7, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/sep/07/werner-herzog-facts-do-not-constitute-truth (accessed May 20, 2013).
Ebert, Roger, “Mandingo,” July 25, 1975, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/mandingo-1975 (access May 19, 2015).
Laffly, Tomris, “12 Years a Slave,” Film International Journal 116, no. 11 (2013): 132-134.
Williams, Linda, “Pornography, Exploitation, and Interracial Lust,” in Porn Studies, ed. Linda Williams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 271-308.
Wood, Robin, “’Mandingo’: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 265-282.