Less a cousin of Django Unchained than 12 Years A Slave, Mandingo addresses the issues of personal pleasure (sexual and violent) against the ideology of the South and slavery. But where McQueen’s choice of a hyper-aware beautiful aesthetic created an awkward rift between his distanced attempt at an objective perspective and the cartoonish behavior he documents in the narrative’s latter half (mostly thanks to Michael Fassbinder’s performance), director Richard Fleischer’s choice to embrace the exploitation tone makes this a more nuanced affair in many ways. Because everyone acts like they’re in a bad version of Masterpiece Theater (just watch James Mason chomp up every line), the parts where their artifice often breaks feels more in tuned with ideological frameworks as a form of performativity, and thus a the film’s sense of psychological nuance becomes a realism. The confrontation between Made and Blanche is full of very careful performance moments where they’re intellectual desires slowly fall, and thanks to his zoom lenses, Fleischer captures the psychology changing before their eyes in a way that would make Béla Balázs shout with joy. The face in Mandingo becomes a tool for political discourse.
Fleischer shoots the film in 1.85 here as opposed to his standard Cinema-Scope 2.35, but space is often a factor. White characters are often centered with African Americans pushed off to the sides, the use of mirrors allows shots to run longer and put characters into unique spatial dynamics. And a great late dolly shows a stunning moment as it repeats the opening shot of a character looking down on the slaves, but it’s about who’s POV this shot ultimately belongs to and what they are looking at, which isn’t even revealed until halfway through the dolly. For all its trashy gloss then, it’s a film full of subtle details that feel only registered by the camera and thus the spectator gazing into the past. The way that Mason and King discuss “white ladies” is as crass and Othering as their discussion of their “wenches” and “fighting niggers.” But often what’s striking about the characters—both white and black—is how they look with distrust not because of ideological reasons but their own personal drives. It is simply that the system they live them allows those personal drives to be used for easy exploitation—Hammond discovers Made’s fighting abilities while at a visit to a brothel, and will use his prowess to essentially supplant his sexual desire (a choice that comes back to haunt him).
Fernando Croce reevaluates the often dismissive comparison to Showgirls by noting, “both films are descendants of Douglas Sirk’s sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye.” But it’s the moments that are just barely noted—Hammond’s quick-haste dismissal of his slave mistress during a moment of violent determination the most damning—that make Mandingo a film that captures ideology without centering it. It’s a film that doesn’t ask us to gawk at atrocities through a pristine lens (though really a prestige lens), but to really look beyond surfaces to see what really makes a mind work when living in an paradoxical ideology.