I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave yet. I’m pretty sure that it’s a good film, based on everything I’ve read. But I don’t think it will knock me out, because everything I have heard and read about its intensity, brutality, ugliness, and cold, clear eye about the realities of slavery was already done nearly 40 years ago in another film – Mandingo. That’s not to say that the new film won’t be worthwhile – the story’s completely different of course and there can never be enough serious films about major injustices of the world – but those claiming that there’s never been another film like it or that it took a European director to air out our American dirty laundry simply haven’t done their research. And, just as a side note, the director of 12 Years A Slave has a habit in his earlier films of using some very arty tactics that, for me, pull you out of the narrative he’s telling, where the approach in Mandingo is almost certainly far more blunt and direct.
Of course there are also some of the techniques of melodrama at play in Mandingo, which is presumably why the reigning opinion of the film has been that it is an “overheated potboiler,” as Leonard Maltin called it in his book, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. But I wasn’t laughing here. The film opens with a slave trader buying human chattel from a plantation owner, Warren Maxwell (played by James Mason), on his slowly decaying plantation. He dutifully examines every detail of their bodies, pulling their mouths open to inspect their teeth, and even checking for hemorrhoids. Once the trader has purchased his human goods, we shift the focus to the film’s central character – Warren’s son Hammond (Ham) Maxwell (played by Perry King). Ham walks with a limp he’s had since an accident in his youth, but is described by the slave trader as a “stud” who performs the “Master’s duty to pleasure the wenches” on the plantation. But Ham is noted as “strange” for “caring what a white man do to a wench.” And when he’s encouraged to marry a white woman (Blanche, played by Susan George) to carry on the family’s lineage, his sexual and emotional preference for slaves becomes a major issue in the house.
Because the sexual truths of the film are treated as realistically as the violence, the film has acquired its unfair reputation as a “potboiler” but it’s central to the film’s strategy. The film posits the institution of slavery as one that corrupts and debases everyone it touches, from the obvious injustice to the slaves themselves by their white owners, to the masters’ view of women as property (above the slaves, but still explicitly and clearly beneath the white men), and on down the chain to where Blanche starts to self-destruct and act out in the one place she does have power – over the slaves – and further down to infighting between the slaves themselves. We’re offered some incredibly uncomfortable scenes here that ring true to me – an intensely brutal fight between two slaves, Ham’s callous and hypocritical judgments about Blanche’s virginity where he has none about his “wenches,” the horrific punishments dealt out to the house Negro Agamemnon for reading – and the film doesn’t flinch from showing them (and others) any more than 12 Years A Slave surely does. And ultimately, even though Ham is at times a sympathetic character, the film doesn’t balk at showing that the institution of slavery corrupts everyone it touches – there’s no such thing as a kind and gentle slave owner, even one as “strange” as Ham, who proves himself as cold and brutal a slave owner as any.
I don’t mean to take anything away from what is undoubtedly a batch of much-deserved praise for Steven McQueen’s new film. I’m sure it’s great, challenging, and serious in its own way. But those who claim it’s the first, or best film ever to deal so bluntly, realistically and directly with slavery simply haven’t done their homework. Director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage) and screenwriter Norman Wexler (Serpico, Saturday Night Fever) together with a dedicated cast fashioned a masterpiece on the subject several decades ago, and I haven’t met anyone who’s seen it recently who doesn’t take the film more seriously than Leonard Maltin.
- Patrick Brown