Friday, September 20, 2013

Ken Norton (1943-2013), Star of MANDINGO

Upon hearing about the recent passing of Ken Norton, I now re-present my look at MANDINGO. I also highly recomemnd the book MONDO MANDINGO, which recounts the history of the original controversial novel as well as the sequels, spinoffs and film adaptations.

Here's a repost of my MANDINGO article from 2010 :
MANDINGO is one of the "forbidden films" that I've always heard about, but kinda sorta avoided because I knew it would be an unsetting experience. I recently bought a copy at Marshall's (of all the places) for $3.99 (you can't beat that price!) and decided it was time to face my fears and watch the damn thing. WARNING: This review contains full frontal nudity and junk fondling.
First some back story. MANDINGO (1975) was adapted from a 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott. It was Appalling! Terrifying! And Wonderful?
It was directed by Richard Fleischer (son of animation legend Max Fleisher), known for such mainstream hits as Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1967) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973). He later directed the Neil Diamond version of THE JAZZ SINGER (1980). What a diverse career!
MANDINGO was produced by the recently-deceased Dino DeLaurentiis and released - remarkably - by Paramount Pictures! It was rated R.
The film stars English actors James Mason, Paul Benedict (Mr. Bentley from THE JEFFERSONS) and Susan George, up-and-comers Perry King, Brenda Sykes and professional boxer Ken Norton in his first acting role.
Set in the Antebellum period in the deep South on a plantation named Falconhurst. The manor that has seen much better days, here we meet slave-trader Warren Maxwell (Mason), his handsome young son Hammond (King) and an assortment of their friends and slaves.
This being Black History Month, I'm not sure this was a good viewing choice, because right off the bat, I don't think I've ever heard the "N word" uttered so many times by white actors. This makes me extremely uncomfortable, but I try to keep it within it's historical perspective.
Brutal scenes of whipping, torture and abuse of slaves is juxtaposed with the with the lifestyles of the white and
privledged. James Mason's character even uses a young slave boy as a footrest to draw out the rheumatism from his sore feet. It's painful to watch. Then, when a young slave woman "goes into heat", it's up to her "master" Hammond to take her virginity.
Perry King goes full frontal in this scene. Something you usually don't expect from a leading man in a historical drama from a major studio.
Well it was the 1970s after all, and the MPAA was a lot more liberal back then when it came to nudity. Reference 14-year old Jodie Foster topless in the PG-rated THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. Today, the Parent's Council would declare it "child pornography". Back in the 70s, it was just a movie.
Getting back to MANDINGO...we now meet Ken Norton's character, Mede - he's a "Mandingo" slave who is being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Mede gets his junk fondled by a perspective buyer. She's from Germany after all.

But Hammond is the winner of the auction, and Mede's new owner. Have I mentioned how HOT Ken Norton is?
Hammond sees Mede's purchase an an opportunity to turn the hunky slave into a champion fighter.

Back at Falconhurt, Hammond is now married to a woman named Blanche (Susan George), but he doesn't know what to do with a white woman in bed since he's only had sex with "wenches." He's disappointed to discover that she is not a virgin.

So then Hammond the gets HIS junked fondled by a whore in a surprisingly graphic fashion.
And then he winds up in bed with a sweet and sexy slave girl named Ellen (Brenda Sykes).
Insanely jealous Blanche is none to happy about this and gives Ellen a piece of her evil mind.
Additionally, Blanche concocts a plot to get back at her loveless husband by seducing Mede and telling Hammomd that he raped her.
Mede tries to resist out of loyalty for his master, but Blanche threatens to cry rape even if he doesn't bed her. What a bitch!
So he does it.
The big fight that Mede has been training for happens, and Hammond is pleased with the outcome, he purchases some jewelry to bring back home. But in the biggest Faux Pas south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gives earrings to Ellen.
 But he gives the matching necklace to his wife Blanche. Blanche is not pleased - but she is pregnant! And so is Ellen!
I'm not gonna give it away - but one baby lives and the other one...not so much.
As for Mede, let's just say there is not a happy ending to this sordid soap opera about lust between the races. 

In conclusion, I am glad I finally watched MANDINGO, though I felt real dirty doing so. I'm not sure why it even was made. It's like Dino DeLaurentiis said (in his Italian accent)  "Let's a take the GONE WITH THE WIND and the Blaxsploitation movies and a throw in a some of that soft-corn porn over there and let's a sell it to Paramount, okay?" 

If they were going for the story of how horrible human beings can be to each other, I guess they did a commendable good job. Perry King's character is supposed to be the "hero" of the story, but yet he says and does such ghastly things because, I assume, that's how white people acted towards people of color in those days. When I watch movies like this I always wonder what the actors were thinking. Not only people like James Mason, but all the actors who played the slaves. Did they just think of it as a paycheck or did they think they were participating in an accurate portrayal of American history as it really happened?

As a film, I'd give it a 6 outta 10 - mostly because of Susan George's over-the-top performance as Blanche. But as a slice of pop culture history I gotta admit it's pretty far out there. So, if you dare to sit through some pretty squeamish stuff to see Perry King get a reach-around through his knickers and James Mason as one of the most despicable characters ever captured on film, I say go for it. $3.99 at Marshalls.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing the movie poster and rearranging the characters in my mind, so that Perry King and Ken Norton were in each other's arms! In the poster, Perry and the Afro-American woman are in the exact same pose as Gable-Leigh in the '67 GWTW reissue poster that most people are familiar with today. They should've made Perry King's character bisexual. That way he could've bedded both women AND Ken Norton.