The excitement surrounding Steve McQueen’s rendering of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative 12 Years a Slave into a Hollywood film has, with few exceptions, spilled toward the laudatory, the righteous, the historical. Aside from claims that 12 Years is a difficult film to watch because it graphically depicts the violence described in Northup’s story, very little criticism of the film has ventured beyond that caveat. It seems as if two factors are at play in the conventional wisdom about 12 Years. First, the film is gorgeous, faithful to its source, contains many wonderful performances, and portrays in dead earnest a historical tale virtually ignored for many years. It’s a Good Film. Second, over and above its merits, it’s difficult to find fault with a movie whose mere existence seems so vital.
Solomon Northup, born a free man of color in upstate New York, wrote his story in 1853, after having been kidnapped in 1841 by a pair of “blackbirders,” scammers who stole free blacks from the North and sold them into slavery in the South. Bullied into subservience, Northup eventually found himself in Louisiana under the lash of a cruel master named Epps. Steve McQueen’s film dramatizes all of the high points in Northup’s story, in order. Reading the book right after seeing the movie, as I did, you feel the strength of the film’s reverence for the book — as well as a nagging sense that such devotion has severely depleted the possibilities for artistry or play within the story.
This may be why, after watching 12 Years, my admiration for the film failed to spill beyond enthusiasm for its technical prowess into transcendence. Why didn’t my deep respect for the project, the brilliant actors, and the undeniable thrills of the tale inspire me to shout excitedly that I loved the movie? I am going to lay the blame at the foot of Mandingo. Yes, you read right. Mandingo.
Generally considered a lurid potboiler that reared its misshapen head into the cinema of 1975, championed by few during its heyday and not many since, Mandingo attempted, albeit clumsily, to do some of the work for which 12 Years has received credit. It did so, however, in the course of selling sex — and for that sin, hardly anyone has forgiven it.
Producer Dino DeLaurentis and director Richard Fleisher (who had made Soylent Green the year before), seemed doomed to such misunderstanding when they made Mandingo. From the promotional posters and trailer, one could argue that they courted that misunderstanding. Perhaps, since the copious nudity (male and female) of the film has made it an object of shame for so long, and because its performances are uneven, Mandingo‘s strongest asset is Norman Wexler’s complex, unsettling script (itself based on Kyle Onstott’s 1957 bestseller, whose paternalistic attitude Wexler shrewdly avoids).
Though Mandingo probably couldn’t have gotten made in a different context, it appeared at the tail end of an unprecedented explosion of softcore porn and blaxploitation that began with I Am Curious: Yellow (1967), morphed into Deep Throat (1972), reached some kind of mad apex with Foxy Brown (1974), and influenced more serious movies like Last Tango in Paris (1972). In those days, no one would’ve credited the filmmakers of Mandingo with trying to inspire a dialogue about the legacy of chattel slavery in America, unflinchingly depicting the brutality and hatefulness of that system, and telling its story from a perspective that foregrounded slaves as major characters, but not only did Mandingo achieve some of those aims, it also had a few tricks up its sleeve that 12 Years a Slave does not. One might well ask whether it isn’t somehow fitting that the exploitation represented by chattel slavery should be represented by an exploitation film.
When people think of Mandingo at all, they think of sex. “Take me, Mandingo!” became a catchphrase in the late 70s, although it is never uttered in the film. Instead, this lustful utterance found its way into popular culture through the sketch comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and later, a Saturday Night Live sketch, and remains for many people their only exposure to Mandingo. But even the misquote seems a fair representation: Sex is at the core of the story. As film critic Robin Wood points out in his defense of Mandingo, which he called an “abused masterpiece,” “the Falconhurst plantation grows only slaves (we see no crops of any kind), breeding them and selling them.” In a canny parallel, however, white folks are not immune to forced breeding either (there’s plenty of degradation to go around in the world of Mandingo). The patriarch of Falconhurst, Warren Maxwell (James Mason), insists that his son Hammond (Perry King) marry his cousin Blanche (Susan George) for the express purpose of producing an heir to Falconhurst. But Hammond emphatically refuses to give up sex with slave girls. “I wouldn’t know what to do!” he complains. “Not with no white lady! And you can’t have no more wenches if’n you’re married.” His pa assures him this is not so, that in fact, white wives not only want the master to make more slaves, they enjoy having time off from his advances.
Something about this intricate system of ludicrous justifications for sexual subjugation rings true, especially in light of still-contemporary right-wing attitudes toward women’s bodies, and the regularity of mayhem inflicted on black bodies. Mandingo forces us to be complicit in the sheer repulsive insanity that ensues. Briefly: Hammond, who is lame in one leg, marries his cousin, takes up with a particular slave girl Ellen (Brenda Sykes), and acquires a prizefighting Mandingo slave, Mede (Ken Norton), whose body he seems to see as an appendage to his own less fit one. To get back at Hammond for his philandering, his wife forces Mede to bed her.
Absurdly, this moment of black emasculation has been interpreted by our culture as its opposite — it’s more like Take me, Blanche! But when Blanche and Mede produce an heir, the resulting child cannot be treated as a slave under this infernal system, but an abomination, and he’s done away with, the first victim in a bloody denouement worthy of Titus Andronicus. Let’s just say that by the end, someone gets boiled alive and stabbed to death with a pitchfork.
By contrast, 12 Years a Slave tells a simpler story, one that is emphatically not about sex at all, and has only marginally to do with the kinds of attitudes and stereotypes that have calcified around black and white sexuality in relation to antebellum slavery. (It also has less to say about black resistance and compliance. While the Northup of 12 Years beats up an insouciant white boy on impulse and receives a gruesome punishment, Mandingo contains a subplot about a group of slaves who teach each other to read and remain defiant. Mede betrays the ringleader, who before being executed spits, “After you hang me, kiss my ass!”)
The lack of sex in 12 Years may have something to do with McQueen’s faithfulness to Northup’s story; since slave narratives were calibrated to further the abolitionist cause, they’re definitely not meant to titillate anyone, nor did they represent the sexual abuses of plantation life suffered by slaves in graphic detail. A given slave narrative might discuss the rape of female slaves, usually in the course of a man’s story, probably at some distance. Of course, male rape went entirely unreported.
For McQueen, and perhaps Northup, questions of sex also have easier answers: the same Mandingo-esque bitter triangle develops among slave master Epps, his wife, and his obsession/victim, Patsey, but Epps’ wife directs all of her rage at the girl, seemingly lacking any erotic urges of her own. In Mandingo, Blanche launches similar attacks against Ellen, at one point tossing her down the stairs in hope that she will miscarry, but by raping Mede, confronts both black and white male power, exhibiting an agency and independence that seem to have bypassed Mistress Epps.
12 Years never asks the confounding question of whether love is possible on anyone’s part under such an oppressive system, but in Mandingo, Hammond’s association with Ellen suggests something hard to parse and again, uncomfortably human — that Hammond has power, so he believes himself to have genuine feelings for Ellen, whereas Ellen sees Hammond as a possible way toward freedom. It’s also troubling that there are so many attractive actors in Mandingo — Perry King (of later fame as the blond hunk on ABC’s Riptide) as Hammond, limps hastily around in tights; no shirt can restrain the chiseled musculature of Ken Norton, a pro boxer who beat Muhammad Ali in 1973; and natural-haired sylph Brenda Sykes is the picture of black power-era pulchritude.
12 Years, by contrast, asks us never to see its principals in this light. Though Lupita Nyong’o, as Epps’s object of abuse, packs more sex appeal than Sykes offscreen, her character’s too screwed up and tragic for an erotic gaze — ditto Michael Fassbender as Epps, whose cartoonishly evil nature occludes his hotness.
12 Years never questions the issue of Solomon Northup’s purity (which may have been sidestepped in his narrative); there’s never a moment of illicit desire on the kidnapped slave’s part for anything other than freedom. We’re expected to believe that he remained absolutely faithful to his wife during a period of twelve years during which he didn’t know he would ever get free or see her again; he’s neutered by this assumption for the duration of the film. Even when Northup returns to Saratoga, his family expresses their joy, but passion seems absent, or at least unexpressed, even after so much time supposedly celibate.
12 Years presents its hero as an entirely honorable victim in an expertly crafted and elegant film, while Mandingo throws us into the ugly mess that slavery and sex create when they collide, among a complicated, unruly, and rude group of tragic characters controlled by the brutality of the social milieu in which they live, their base cravings, and their denial. Its sexual frankness plays on our own attractions to various actors/characters in order to show us how our baser drives can control us in similar ways. It’s hard to deny that the fictional, less carefully handled, more confounding depiction of this time period seems more alive — even if it isn’t as good.
Novelist James Hannaham is the author of God Says No (McSweeney’s) and Delicious Foods, which will appear from Little, Brown in 2015.