Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family name, so he sends son Hammond to court his cousin Blanche. Along the way, Hammond and cousin Charles are treated to having sex with a couple of slaves. While the cruel Charles beats his with a belt, Hammond develops feelings for his, Ellie, and purchases her. He also buys a Mandingo slave called Mede, “a fightin’ n*gger” who he plans to use to wager on in to-the-death battles and breed with the other slaves.

On his wedding night, Ham discovers Blanche is no virgin – seems she’s already been had by her brother Charles (“It was just once!”). Disgusted, Ham turns to his “bed wench” Ellie for comfort, and she soon becomes pregnant. While Ham’s off pitting Mede in a brutal contest against a slave named Topaz (a no-holds-barred, hardcore battle straight outta Paul Heyman’s late, lamented Extreme Championship Wrestling!), a drunken Blanche whips Ellie with a riding crop, forcing the slave to tumble down the staircase and lose her baby.

 

Ham, who no longer touches Blanche, heads to Natchez to sell some slaves, and while the cat’s away, Blanche will play… with Mede, whom she forces to have sex with her by threatening to tell Ham he raped her (a lie, of course). Warren, tired of waiting for a grandbaby, locks Ham and Blanche in the bedroom together until they do the wild thing and produce a kid! Blanche soon announces she’s with child, and a baby is born at last… a black baby! Mede’s! The not-so-kindly family doctor allows the child to bleed out and die, Ham sees the dead black baby in it’s crib, poisons Blanche, and goes after Mede with a gun! Forcing Mede to fill a cauldron with boiling hot water, he tells his Mandingo, “GET IN!”. Of course Mede refuses, and Ham shoots Mede into the pot and runs him through with a pitchfork! Head slave Agamemnon grabs the gun and aims at Ham, Warren commands him to stop, so Agamemnon shoots Warren instead and runs off, and… and our film abruptly ends right there!

The distinguished actor James Mason plays family patriarch Warren Maxwell waaay over-the-top, complete with a terrible Southern accent. Mason seems to know he’s trapped in a bad film, and compensates by hamming it up mercilessly as the old slave owner. Whether delivering lines like (to his daughter-in-law) “You actin’ zany! Zany! You actin’ like a Georgia bitch!”, or trying to cure his “rheumatis” by pressing his bare feet on a little black child’s belly, Mason earns a spot in the Bad Acting Hall of Fame.

If Mason is over-the-top, Susan George as Blanche takes a full  leap into the abyss as Blanche. Her character is a drunken, horny harridan, vicious as the devil, and George is a real hoot! Perry King tries to play it straight as Hammond, but eventually gets caught up in the overblown theatrics. Brenda Sykes is good as Ellie, and the great Richard Ward shines in the role of the smarter-than-they-think Agamemnon  (“Why, a lazy, no account, stupid, God-forsaken n*gger like me cain’t have a soul, Massa”). Also in the cast are Paul Benedict (Bentley on THE JEFFERSONS), Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Lillian Hayman (the soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE), former Mr. Universe/pro wrestler Earl Maynard, Debbie Morgan (ALL MY CHILDREN), and Roy Poole.

Then we’ve got heavyweight boxer Ken Norton in the pivotal part of Mede. The muscular 6’3″, 200+ pounder, who handed Muhammad Ali his second professional loss in 1973 and held the WBC title in ’78, makes an imposing presence. Norton wanted to be an actor, but lacked the talent. He did star in the sequel DRUM, and had some other film and TV credits, but as a thespian, he was a good boxer. Norton tries, I’ll give him that, and he’s great in the fight scenes, but let’s just say dialog wasn’t his strong point!

Director Richard Fleischer throws any sense of subtilty out the plantation window in this lurid little Exploitation number. The movie’s based on an equally lurid 1957 book by Kyle Onstott, which must have shocked the socks off of readers back then. Dino De Laurentiis produced, a sure sign of big-budget schlock (though to be fair, he did make his share of good films). And Executive Producer Ralph Serpe claimed MANDINGO would “bring about a better understanding between the races”. Who you kiddin’ bud? There’s no deep sociological message to MANDINGO – it’s strictly Exploitation fare, and should be treated as such. If you’re in the mood for some trashy fun in a “so-bad-it’s- good” kinda way, then MANDINGO is right up your alley. Don’t expect any more than that!

That’s Blaxpolitation! 5: The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

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Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.

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Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.

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There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.

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1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.

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Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.

 

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