There are certain movies that become massive hits without ever earning respect from critics or the public at large. One could argue that this has always been Hollywood’s stock-in-trade. It’s nice to win Oscars and have your work praised for its relevance and artistry – but the studio’s bottom line is fulfilled by giving the people what they want. Mandingo is perfect example of a movie that was successful in spite of the tastemakers: this adaptation of the first novel in a long-running series about a slave-breeding mansion packed ’em in at the theaters even as it was vilified for pandering to the worst of its audience’s prurient interests.
Mandingo is a far better film than its reputation suggests, one that challenges its audience even as it fulfills the lurid storyline of its source material. This approach is reflected in its trailer, a clever piece of salesmanship that assures fans of the books that they’ll get what they came for while also layering in its own subversive elements.
The first few moments let us know something’s “off” with this epic: we’re introduced to a large Southern mansion but it looks rundown and dirty, surrounded by overgrown woods. The narration goes for grandiosity but does so in a way that lets us know we’re not watching a tribute to humanity’s nobler qualities: “All the shocking realism! All the magnificence and depravity!” The remainder of the trailer’s first section lets us know it is concerned with the slave’s point of view: they are presented as righteously angry about their lot in life while having to fulfill the whims of their white owners, who are portrayed as brutal (beating slaves), perverse (cousins French kissing) and quietly insane (a master resting his feet on a boy slave’s belly to “drain off” his rheumatism).
The next section of the trailer begins with another snippet of narration that testifies to the book’s “9.5 million copies sold” success as the imagery shows the scale of the film with a massive slave market set and hundreds of extras. But the remainder of this section shows us how the slavers dominate the slaves, punishing any whiff of an uprising with brutality, shown by the hanging of a defiant slave powerfully portrayed by Ji-Tu Cumbuka, and Hammond (Perry King) reacting with anger when his bed-wench Ellen (Brenda Sykes) asks if their child can be a free man. We also see how Hammond and his cousin/wife Blanche (Susan George) sublimate their frustrations with each other into sexual relationships with slaves, with Blanche memorably threatening Mede (Ken Norton) with the certain death of a rape accusation if he doesn’t fulfill her needs.
The final segment of the trailer uses Mede as a symbol for how the plantation-era South was both fascinated with and fearful of black masculine virility: Hammond cheers Mede on with devotion when he’s winning him money in the bare-knuckle fighting ring but he’s just as capable of turning on Mede with a gun if he thinks he’s come near a white woman. Between these beats, there’s a flurry of punching, slapping and brawling, all laid out with an accent on pain. All that’s left after that is to unfurl a closing set of credits as the narrator warns us that Mandingo is “the first true motion picture epic of the Old South.”
The resulting trailer, something of an epic at just under three minutes in length, is a smartly-assembled reflection of the “have your cake/eat it, too” approach taken by the filmmakers. It lets you know that the sex, brutality and shocks of the source material have been retained for its big screen incarnation… but it also lets you know that those elements represent an ugly period in American history and forces you to recognize who does and does not deserve the viewer’s sympathies.
To read Schlockmania’s review of Mandingo, click here.
And to read Schlockmania’s review of Paul Talbot’s excellent history of the Mandingo series, Mondo Mandingo, click here.