Monday, July 30, 2012

Mandingo and My Late Formative Years

When Mandingo came out, I was living in Atlanta and saw the movie during a weekday matinee. Produced by Dino De Laurentis (La Strada, Barbarella, and Blue Velvet) and directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, and Soylent Green), the film stars James Mason, Perry King, Susan George, ex-Mr Universe and NWA wrestler Earl Maynard, and, most sumptuously, ex-WBC heavyweight champ Ken Norton. I went to see it because I had a crush on rising star King, but left it enamored with Norton. 

Ostensibly about the horrors of slavery in the American South, it's now remembered as a blaxploitation film with epic aspirations. In 1975, Roger Ebert referred to it as a "piece of manure" and "racist trash." Twenty years later, British film critic Robin Wood called it an "abused masterpiece," raising America's race issues to the level of Greek tragedy (see Ch. 12), and director Quentin Tarantino defended it as a praiseworthy example (along with 1995's Showgirls) of "pure" exploitation (see pp. 172-173). The film preceded Roots (both the bestselling book and the hugely influential TV miniseries) and, in its depiction of fighting as a way of life, anticipated films like Fight Club and The Wrestler, decades later. In the film, Norton stonily portrays a character provocatively named Ganymede ("Mede" for short). White gamblers place bets on him in no-holds-barred fights against other slaves (a practice the film explicitly compares to cock and dog fights), and his owner's bored wife uses him as a sex toy.

Full-frontal nudity (male and female) and torturous violence (no stinting on the cruelty of slave-owners) were what held my attention at age 22. The fight scenes both repelled and aroused me, mainly because in physique and stoic reserve Norton struck me as magnificent, even godlike. For me, the fights were less troubling than scenes of cowardly weaklings living off and torturing those they viewed as social inferiors. At least the fights portrayed a degree of human passion and nobility. The film ridiculed white people's stereotypes of black people with the same exuberance we saw a lot in 1970s television (All in the Family and Good Times) and film comedy (Blazing Saddles and Car Wash). Only bleaker and more tormented. At home I tried to explain to my friend Luis (whom I'd known since our Miami days in a whites-only Christian high school) the appalling yet absurdly comic effect of seeing James Mason, as a plantation owner, pressing small black boys against his feet in bed as a cure for rheumatism. Or a scene in which a dumpy German hausfrau at the slave market boldly sticks her hand down the front of Norton's pants and exclaims, "I don't buy a pig in zee poke!"

I was in my early twenties, enrolled in a fundamentalist Baptist college, but obviously in a state of, hm, "spiritual transition." (Luis commented on the fact that I stacked my bible on top of my After Dark magazines and that, with no evident shame, the preacher's son and I would strip down to our briefs to wrestle in our dorm rooms. The son of a preacher man was one of several football players I liked to roughhouse with back then.) The impact of Ken Norton on me was nothing short of stunning. Although I was (and am) principally attracted to white men, I had found black men beautiful since childhood, before "black is beautiful" became common usage. My best friend in fourth and fifth grades in Altus, Oklahoma, was Carl, who lived next door. Carl turned me on to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and xylophone jazz. He also struck me as perfect in every aspect. At the movies I lusted after Woody Strode and Breno Mello, and though I never watched football on TV, I followed the career of OJ Simpson with interest (as an athlete, not so much later as an actor or now as an imprisoned felon), more for his sexy eyes and mouth than his skills on the field, about which I knew nothing. I knew "about" Ken Norton as a boxer, but he had not entered the path of my radar. In Mandingo he held my eyes in every scene he was in.

The scenes that most entranced me, though, were the grappling scenes, of course. The fighters fought on lawns at night. The camera pulled in tight on the half-nude bodies in combat, just as it lingered adoringly on the bodies in coitus in the sex scenes. Of course, the action was brutal, eye gouging and biting, but the pure animal savagery of it appealed to my (mostly) repressed kinky tastes. I didn't care so much for the blood, especially in a climactic battle pitting Mede against a champion from Jamaica, but the aggression and body contact made my cheekbones flush and my groin go tingly. (One word of warning to the curious, though: a couple of years ago I tried to re-watch this movie on DVD, but the transfer was weak, and the print was too dark to make out any detail in the night scenes.) In the mostly empty theater, the film revealed to me my propensity for mild sado-eroticism, which even my interest in wrestling had not yet clued me to.

Is the film a "piece of manure"? No, but it is entertainment of a seedy, "grindhouse" sort, for certain "tastes" only. Is it racist? Perhaps, in its portrayal of the black characters as psychologically dull and indistinctive objects of white people's' lust and abuse. (But what is the effect of slave labor and abject economic dependence, other than to make humans psychologically dull and indistinctive?) Perhaps, too, the film is racist in its blunt depiction of antebellum racism--since sometimes it's difficult to see the line between depicting racism and perpetuating racism. Then again, perhaps it's not racist. Its deliberate ridicule of romantic ideas about the Old South you find in films like Gone with the Wind (very evident even in its poster art, see below) leads me to trust the filmmakers' motives as sincere and well meaning. Incest, murder, torture, and rape are sordid realities in America's history, but in the film they also represent the deterioration of human spirit for slave and master alike. The film's most lurid moments would repel all but the most dedicated sadist. They are meant to horrify, while other scenes clearly intend us to take in the beauty of bodies (black and white, male and female). There's even a hint of homoerotic attraction between the master and his slave. For me, the appeal of the film rests entirely on Ken Norton, his powerful physique and his tragic impassivity, a heroic figure forced to be a victim of the interests, desires, and mood swings of other people. Norton is something all right. He was Tyson when Tyson was nine. I probably need to look up some of his old fights on YouTube someday.

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