When I saw it again recently, this time with my Manosphere goggles on, it surprised me how full of lessons on the male-female dynamics it contained.
I missed all that the first time round.
'Mandingo' is set on Falconhurst, a run-down plantation in the Deep South during the hey-day of the slave trade.
The owner is Warren Maxwell, a widower with rheumatism and a fiery temper (at least against abolitionists) and he lives there with his son Hammond, who limps following a childhood accident where he was stomped on the knee by a pony.
If the overriding wrongs of slavery can be set aside for the purposes of focusing on the point of this review, then Hammond Maxwell is the ultimate 'good guy'.
In fact, even in the context of the slave trade, he was amazingly principled.
Except for one or two misdemeanors on his part, he is a conscientious fellow who is a free agent in the sense that he never allowed himself to be swayed by anyone's moral compass but his own. And he was morally sound, at least far more than the people around him.
The Maxwells' household consisted of Lucrezia Borgia, a Mandingo slave woman (the chief cook, and as was not unusual at that time, virtual mother to Hammond, I suspect even before his real mother died), Big Pearl, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia, Agamemnon the chief house slave and a few other slaves including children.
Warren's favourite topic of conversation was the 'Mandingo' - a specific tribe of slave (who hail from modern day Sierra Leone) who were known for their 'strong genes', which meant more money for any slave master who had one. The male Mandingos were prized because they made unbeatable wrestlers.
Hammond, unmarried at the start of the film had an eye for slave women, particularly virgin ones. But unlike his peers, he actually liked (loved?) these women.
He fell in love with one, Ellen when he and a friend paid a visit to a ranch belonging to a family friend and he and his friend were presented with two slave women for the night.
Ellen, the virgin of the two girls noticed immediately that Hammond was 'different' from other white men, and consented to be with Hammond, who gave her the choice to stay or leave.
Maxwell Senior is getting old and starts pressuring Hammond to get a wife and produce an heir for the plantation.
Around this time, Hammond's cousin Charles pays a visit, and it becomes a foregone conclusion that Hammond would marry Charles' sister, Blanche.
This duly happens rather quickly. Blanche certainly plays her cards right.
It wasn't until the wedding night that Hammond discovers she is not a virgin.
Being an expert on virgins, he could tell.
At first Blanche denied this.
But she never regained the love nor respect of Hammond.
Towards the end of the film she confesses that she and her brother Charles were up to things they shouldn't have. In her defence, she said it happened when she was 13. (Statutory rape, then).
Hammond never forgot Ellen, his slave lover.
Following the disappointment of his wedding night, he goes in search for her, buys her and takes her home with him, along with Mede, a prize fighter of a slave man who is 100% Mandingo, and as it happens who becomes the pride of Warren and the whole of Falconhurst plantation.
Blanche is aware of her husband's penchant for black women. When Ellen is bought, she asks Hammond if she is 'for the Mandingo'. Hammond simply replies, "No she ain't".
Here starts the (one-way) rivalry between the two women.
Hammond ignores his wife and spends all his nights with his beloved Ellen. He continuously reassures her that he will never sell her or their children.
When she gets pregnant, he promises her (at her request) that their child will be a free person, not a slave.
Unfortunately that child never got born.
In a fit of jealousy, Blanche attacks Ellen with a whip and she miscarries.
The rage of a woman scorned...
Warren is told of the incident by Lucrezia Borgia. To protect Blanche, Warren instructs Ellen not to tell Hammond about Blanche's misdeed.
Warren becomes increasingly worried that his son and his wife are not getting on with the business of producing an heir for him. He has no idea why Hammond is ignoring his wife.
Of course Hammond never tells his father why he is cold towards his wife. Is this to protect her, or is he simply content to forget she exists and console himself with his slave mistress?
In a classic Manosphere-type 'advice to a woman', Warren instructs her to do whatever it takes to atract and keep Hammond. She retorts that there is nothing she can do to make her husband love her - that he is only attracted to the 'dirty wenches' who do 'dirty' things with men.
Disingenuous. Blanche knows exactly why her husband is rejecting her.
But she would rather make herself seem like a 'good girl' in relation to 'those other women who are dirty' to someone she knows does not know her own dirty little secret.
(Warning: the first 2 minutes of the following video shows a gruesome wrestling match - might be offensive or unwatchable to some).
With the winnings, Warren buys ruby earrings together with matching necklace and gives them to Hammond to give to his wife as a present.
Egged on by his father, Hammond grudgingly gives the ruby necklace to his wife Blanche (what a contrast with the way in which he gives Ellen the ruby earrings!), following which his father locks them together in their room to 'get on with things' after he rebukes Blanche for drinking too much and neglecting her appearance. Blanche is happy when her husband obliges his father and things seem to be looking up for her.
Her happiness is short-lived, however. When she spots Ellen wearing the ruby earrings, she knows Hammond must have given them to her. Her rage against him leads to her fatal confession about who her previous 'suitor' was.
Warren is dismayed at his son for his stupidity re the ruby jewelry. But Hammond is unrepentant.
When Hammond goes away to slave market, Blanche (desperate for some..aherm...male attention, and in revenge for her husband's open affection for Ellen) calls for Mede to come to her room. She is drunk. The other slaves are aware what is about to happen and try to save Mede from his fate, but to no avail.
Blanche blackmails him into doing what she wants. He is in a classic no-win situation.
When Blanche gives birth to a mixed race baby boy nine months later, Hammond is stunned and outraged.
A man betrayed...twice. First to learn his 'virgin bride' is anything but, and then to learn his son and heir is also anything but.
Cuckoldry. A man's greatest fear...
Blanche is a woman hell-bent on punishing her husband for 'abandoning' her, i.e. making her realise her own worst fear.
The baby is sadly killed by the doctor and his midwife wife to spare Hammond the embarrassment. But Hammond nonetheless discovers the truth. He decides to poison Blanche - and does.
Does the punishment fit the crime? Certainly not, but Hammond was in freefall at this point.
And then he goes in search of Mede his slave friend, wielding a gun. This time, not even his beloved Ellen can stop him.
The final scene is excruciating and brutal.
Mede and Agamemnon finally have the courage to speak up in an attempt to reason with Hammond, who (perhaps understandably) has taken temporary leave of his senses, with disastrous results.
He only wakes up to himself when he is faced with the lifeless body of his father prone on the ground before him.
I must say that I feel Hammond let himself down in this scene. He already knew (and should have known anyway!) that Mede woud never have touched his wife unless he was tricked or manipulated into doing it. When his father, seeing him prepare the poison he would later use to kill her suggsted that Blanche could have been raped by Mede, Hammond knew this was not the case.
But his rage (against his wife?) led him to attack Mede who was clearly the innocent party.
I am pretty sure Blanche could have saved her marriage to Hammond if only she had been a woman of good character and some intelligence. Afterall, I am sure there were many non-virgin brides in her day who managed to have longlasting good marriages. The point I am trying to make here is that she was not actually a very nice person to begin with, so I suspect that even if she had been virginal at the time of her marriage, she would still have been in the same position.
Unlike Ellen, who was a slave and therefore was never going to be in a position to marry Hammond, Blanche was already his wife. With a bit of effort on her part, he could have been 'persuaded' to at least share his time equally between her and Ellen. Blanche however, had taken to drinking, and as her father-in law noted, was letting her appearance go. The really sad part is, Blanche had a lot of potential. She was good-looking, and when she did try, she actually managed to get Hammond 'into her'. But her efforts were too sparse. She repeatedly failed in her role as 'relationship expert'.
Ellen on the other hand was always presentable, even though she was a slave woman. When Hammond presents the ruby earrings to her 'to prettify her', he quickly adds 'not that you need prettifying'.
There is no way to be definite about this of course, but it is quite possible that Hammond would never have gone as far as seeking out Ellen and actually buying her to ensure she would remain his forever, if he hadn't been so disappointed with his wife.
He was so keen to forget his new wife that he went in search of Ellen on the way home from the honeymoon! Blanche knew she was in trouble from then on...
As Lucrezia Borgia later explained to Warren and Hammond, Blanche had 'called for' Mede several times. This implies that she was sending a definite message to Hammond. It seems she really wanted to get pregnant by Mede. To teach her husband a lesson. To humiliate him. Kinda like, what you can do, I can do better...'If you're gonna mess about with the slaves, so will I'.
But what a way to teach one's husband a lesson!
I am sure there are much better ways...
Hammond was a good guy in many ways. He was fair, except for right at the end when his wounded manly pride dictated his uncharacteristic behaviour.
It was his habit to 'deflower' the virgin girls amongst the slaves of his father which was (of course abominably) perhaps the culture of the day. But it is noteworthy that he treated all these girls with kindness and gentleness such that none of them felt the need to flee from him, as they often did with the other men. I am not sure how the film makers manage to convince the audience that somehow these women were not being (technically) raped. But somehow they manage it. Sensitive topic so I shall stay away from now on.
He did not share his father's anti-abolition views and was courteous to slaves unless he felt he was being 'disrespected' - for example when he caught Agamemnon reading with other slaves behind his back, and even with Ellen when she first asked him if their (unborn) son could go free and he sensed possible dissent on her part.
Hammond's 'habit' meant that he had the pick of any slave woman he wanted, but that meant he was sexually unacquainted with white women until he married (and in fact as was the custom of the day, he should have been unacquainted with any woman until marriage!).
Technically, that should not have been a problem.
Except that there was the 'conventional wisdom' in place that the white ladies were 'ladies in the bedroom' and the 'wenches' were 'dirty in bed', so Hammond was expecting this to play out in his own life.
Well that never quite transpired.
He is so principled that when it becomes clear that his wife is not 'respectable', he and a friend end up in a brothel, but Hammond cannot bring himself to break his vows - at least not straightaway.
When eventually he does, it is only with his beloved Ellen.
At one point, Blanche is so desperate for his affections that she literally 'jumps him' much to his surprise (did not expect that from a 'white lady' - not even one to whom he was married!).
Had he not written her off, I am sure her advances would have been very welcome indeed. But sadly this was not the case.
Hammond ends up treating Ellen more like a wife than Blanche. He was gentle and affectionate with her, and her needs were a priority for him.
Maxwell Senior is not particularly likeable at the start of the film. He is a grumpy old racist and loudmouthed man.
But he is undeniably a good father.
And, as it turns out, a good father-in-law.
If only Blanche had listened to him for more than five minutes, she could have made her marriage work.
Warren, I suspect liked Ellen (although sometimes he had a funny way of showing it). He, like Hammond was gentle and kind to her. But his first duty was to Blanche, as she was the legitimate wife of his son, so he protected her by lying for her during the miscarriage incident.
He was keen to see his son's marriage work.
When Blanche accuses Hammond of liking 'dirty' women, Warren's reply is to the tune of 'you will also do 'dirty things' if that's what it takes to keep him'. Talk about straightforward marriage counselling!
Warren has a great relationship with Lucrezia Borgia. She is as much the matriarch of the household as he is the patriarch. In many ways, she was a good wife-substitute for him following the death of his wife. And I suppose a mother-figure to Hammond. Both men respect her.
When Lucrezia Borgia, on first meeting Blanche, exclaims, 'Ever since Mrs Maxwell died I have been looking forward to a new mistress', my first thought was, 'Oh yes, why didn't Maxwell Senior remarry?'
Until I realised there was no need. Lucrezia Borgia was already said mistress of the household. All but in name.
Ellen is the sweet and shy slavegirl who steals the heart of Hammond. Unlike Blanche she really gets to know Hammond and what makes him tick.
She cannot have a real rivalry with Blanche in this menage à trois because she is a slave and therefore has no socially relevant power, but she demonstrates backhanded cattiness that all women when faced with competition and given the slightest chance will exhibit.
After Hammond gives her the ruby earrings, she wears them when she is serving dinner, knowing Blanche will see them. That was the extent to which she could wield her power over Blanche and she didn't hesitate to use it. It was efective.
She was also feminine in a way Blanche was not. So she had Hammond eating out of her hand from more or less Day 1. She may have been the underdog in the race for Hammond's affections, but she definitely came out the outright winner.
Poor Mede. I do have some sympathy for him. But not too much.
He was in a very unfortunate position, yes.
And, to make matters worse, I also think (and I say this with all humility) he was a bit of a simpleton.
Three episodes convince me of his lack of higher intellect.
1. Once, he was asked to chase down a runaway slave by the name of Cisero. When Mede finally catches up with Cisero, he is pleased with himself. Cisero rebukes him, explaining that he was just a lapdog for his white masters. Mede seemed oblivious to this.
2. When he wrestles and kills Topaz, another slave, in a brutal wrestling match, again he is pleased with himself (but in all fairness he did show some introspection after this match). Agamemnon has to remind him of his 'puppet' status. Again, Mede needs reminding that pleasing his white masters is not necessarily something to be proud of.
3. For me, the following is the worst one. When he was asked to go to Blanche's room, surely he knew what was about to happen?! Sure, it is quite possible that he felt he had no choice but to follow orders...but I am positive he could have found a way to get out of the terrible dilemma he was about to face.
He could have arranged to 'disappear' from the plantation, he could have feigned an illness, anything!
But poor old Mede walked right into the trap that had been laid for him by Blanche.
His saving grace comes at the very end of the film where he scrapes together the shreds of masculinity he posseses and challenges Hammond's judgment for the very first time.
Too little too late, perhaps?
This film is tainted with the historical context of slavery, of course, so it is quite difficult to be objective about any message it sends, no matter how unrelated to slavery it seems.
Scenes in which Warren and friends dispute that the slaves have souls, where someone suggests that Warren place his rheumatism-ravaged feet on a little black boy to transfer his rheumatism into him, and the discussion between Warren and Hammond where the latter informs the former that Mede is in fact the son of Lucrezia Borgia (but no-one else on the plantation knew because he was sold at birth) and therefore giving Big Pearl to him as his 'wife' would constitute incest but who cares, they are just slaves anyway, and the cruel way in which babies were snatched away from their mothers and sold are all particularly cringeworthy and unwatchable at times.
But I find the male-female dynamics between Hammond and his women remarkedly representative of some of today's SMP issues.
It is afterall, a classic human story.
This post is already too long, but just a quick rundown on the specific Manosphere issues the film throws at me:
1. Men seeking 'foreign' women if the women in their country/culture/race/religion/social circle are not deemed suitable. Although Ellen was stricly speaking not truly 'foreign' to Hammond, she was not in his 'approved' social circle.
Parallels with 'mail order brides' because western men think western women are not 'feminine' enough?
Parallels with black men seeking non-black women because they think black women are not 'feminine' enough?
Is any man happy with his own race/culture woman nowadays?
2. Men have a problem with a woman's 'high number'. In the era of this film, 'one' was deemed a high number, so Blanche paid a high price for it. Because it is perceived that a high number leads to...
3. Betrayal/cuckoldry. A man's worst nightmare. In a man's mind, are 2. and 3. really connected? In this film, is Blanche's lack of virginity the cause of her cheating? Would she not have cheated if she had been a virgin? Can a man ever forgive this sin? Hammond did not.
4. An older man really can be a girl's best teacher when it comes to her relatonship issues, same as he can be for young men. Blanche had both a father and a brother (not sure if her mother was alive). Unfortunately she got the wrong kind of 'brotherly love' which turned out to be a tragedy for her.
When she lets herself go after feeling abandoned by Hammond, it's her father-in-law who teaches her how to be a good woman/wife - a role one would expect from an older woman, eg. her own mother.
Parallels with the Manosphere 'Woman up' theme?
5. A woman blames a man or men in general for her failings in the love department. Blanche does this very well. "It's all Hammond's fault!", she exclaims. "He likes those 'dirty wenches!"
Fair point or patent lack of introspection on her part? (This has to be the most rhetorical question of this post!)
6. The following point is the most subtle of all...
When Hammod learns of Ellen's miscarriage, he is of course sad too. Afterall it's his baby too. But he does not sit and talk through the ins and outs of how she is feeling, etc. Even though he loves her. Her best female friend would have done just that though, because as a woman she would have known that Ellen would have needed that kind of 'therapy'. Hammod gives her her present and hopes it will cheer her up. Ellen does cheer up.
I can't help wondering if a modern woman's response of 'I just miscarried and you think ruby earrings will fix this' is a real slap in the face to a man who is genuinely showing love but in a 'masculine way' which comes across as 'clumsy' to a female mind. Do modern women expect men to be like women? And also for them to be men at the same time? Pie in the sky?
Reminds me of a song by British boy band 'Blur' called 'Girls and boys'.
The chorus goes something like this:
"Girls who are boys
Who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they're girls
Who do girls like they're boys..."
Don't know about you, but my head is spining from the confusion :-)
Ellen of course was in no position to be haughty, as a slave woman, but she still could have been. It seems it is just part of her personality to be 'humble'.
Is this a missing part of modern womanhood as perceived by men?
Are men expecting too much of modern woman? Ditto pie in the sky?