Mandingo Unleashed

Mandingo fighting: fact or fiction?

I - KKK Lookalikes and Mandingo fighters

Halfway through Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, there's a scene in which slave owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo Di Caprio) organizes a gladiator style fight to the death between two slaves, in what is called Mandingo fighting. The term Mandingo refers to various tribes inhabiting parts of Western Africa, notably in the Niger River Valley. According to some persistent rumors, they were used in the days of slavery for brutal fights to the death. The particular scene has led to the question if there is any historical basis for these rumors.  Like I have stated in my essay on Django Unchained, such a question is not essential in relation to Tarantino's art. Tarantino has been described as a head full of movies, and when making his own movies, the raw material for it, is provided by those movies in his head. In other words, they do not necessarily refer to any (in this case: historic) reality outside the movie.

In a recent article, Tarantino has declared that the idea for Django Unchained came to him when he was studying Sergio Corbucci's westerns, which feature archetypical villains like sadistic bounty hunters (The Great Silence), red-hooded KKK lookalikes (Django) and halfbreed maniacs scalping Indians (Navajo Joe):

"Any of the Western directors who had something to say created their own version of the West: Anthony Mann created a West that had room for the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper; Sam Peckinpah had his own West; so did Sergio Leone. Sergio Corbucci did, too — but his West was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre. His characters roam a brutal, sadistic West. (...)"

Apparently Corbucci's West came closest to the image he wanted to depict in his own movie, but he needed a context in which Corbucci's vision could be put into practice:

"I thought the closest equivalent to Corbucci’s brutal landscapes would be the antebellum South. When you learn of the rules and practices of slavery, it was as violent as anything I could do — and absurd and bizarre. You can’t believe it’s happening, which is the nature of true surrealism." 

It'll be no surprise to movie buffs that the movie in Tarantino's head which introduced him to the idea of Mandingo fighting was Richard Fleischer's 1975 infamous movie Mandingo, one of the two movies based on novels by Kyle Onstott (the other being Drum, made one year later) set in the antebellum South and featuring Mandingo fighters. Onstott was a former dog breeder turned best-seller writer, who based his book partly on the anthropology research made by his son in West-Africa. The novel was both a national sensation and a national scandal. And so was the movie.

II - Mandingo - the movie

Mandingo tells the story of a slave owner's son, Hammond Maxwell, who rejects his own wife because she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night (her brother deflowered her) and sleeps instead on a regular base with a black slave. The wife does the same: when her husband is away from home, she invites his slave Mede into her bedroom. Mede was bought by Hammond for Mandingo fighting  and therefore has a lot of privileges: he is freed from duties on the land and the two men have almost become real friends. Things lead to a climax when the missus becomes pregnant, and the child turns out to be 'not white'. Discovering the truth, Hammond poisons his wife and intends to boil the slave alive. Mede first refuses to jump into the boiling liquid, but Hammond shoots him and the bullet catapults him into the cauldron. In the novel he literally boils Mede into soup he then pours on the grave of his late wife. 

All very subtle. Even today this concoction of torture, incest, interracial intercourse and fighting to the death is still quite strong. The late Roger Ebert thought respectable actor James Mason deserved jail rather than a fee for appearing in the movie. Mason is not the only respectable actor to appear in it, and some, notably Perry King and Brenda Sykes even turn in decent performances as, respectively, the young Hammond and his slave mistress (called a "wench" in the movie). However, the most illustrious name is that of Ken Norton, not a professional actor but a professional boxer, introduced to movie audiences on contemporary posters as 'the man who broke Muhammad Ali's jaw'. Norton beat Ali in 1971 in a fight in which he allegedly broke Ali's jaw (1). Norton plays of course Mede, the Mandingo fighter, and the choice for a professional boxer might have been inspired by other than only physical reasons. Professional boxing, dominated by Afro-Americans (especially in the heavyweight divisions), had been denounced by some intellectuals as a repulsive spectacle for whites involving former slaves. And, as we shall see, there might be some connection to organized fights (if not exactly Mandingo like) involving Afro-Americans in the days of slavery.

Officially Mandingo is part of the Blaxploitation craze that reached theaters worldwide in the early and mid-seventies, but unlike most of these movies, it's heavy-handed and dead-serious, not playful and flashy. Blaxpoloitation was part of the process of awakening of the Afro-American citizens, following Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat in the colored section on a bus to a white passenger, Martin Luther King's I have a dream and James Brown singing Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. The idea behind blaxploitation was something like: We're black and we're hip, and we kick ass! Don't watch Mandingo if you're looking for anything like Shaft or Coffy, it's mean and sometimes quite shocking. But then again, it is set in the days of slavery, so wouldn't it be even more shocking if it were playful? And Tarantino was criticized by Spike Lee for turning slavery into a spaghetti western, wasn't he?

II - Fact or fiction?

As said, it is not essential to Tarantino's movie if there is any historical basis for Mandingo fighting, it's simply not what his postmodern style of film making is about, but it still is a question that might be of interest to us. In an article in Slate Magazine,  David Blight, the director of Yale’s center for the study of slavery is quoted, and his statement categorically rejects the possibility that such fights to the death ever took place:

"One reason slave owners wouldn’t have pitted their slaves against each other in such a way is strictly economic. Slavery was built upon money, and the fortune to be made for owners was in buying, selling, and working them, not in sending them out to fight at the risk of death."

It seems to make sense, but other reactions were more reserved. There are several  recorded examples of a slaves fighting other slaves in bare-knuckle contests to entertain plantation owners. Tom Molineux was born into slavery and trained by his father (who had also been a fighter) and won his master large sums of money by winning fist fights (Like Ken Norton's Mede in Mandingo). He was finally granted freedom and then moved to England, where he became a professional fighter, trained by another former slave fighter, Bill Richmond. Admittedly the fights these slaves were involved in, were not 'to the death', but apparently there was a widespread practice of organized slave fighting.

This is also sustained by another expert in the field, Dr. Edna Greene Medford from the history department of Howard University, Washington D.C. in an interview to NextMovie She says:

" (...) there were all sorts of things going on in the South pitting people against one another. To the death, I've never encountered anything like [Mandingo fighting], no. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen in some backwater area, but I've never seen any evidence of it."

She seems to underline David Blight's argument, but adds an interesting note to it:

"It would seem odd to me that someone would allow his enslaved laborer to fight to the death because someone like that would cost them a lot of money. But then it's a gambling enterprise so maybe someone would be willing to do that."

The answer to the question whether there is some historic evidence for Mandingo fighting, is not a simple yes or no. There was a widespread practice of organized fights and even if they were not 'to the death' they must have been quite grueling events. It's almost unthinkable that there have never been any casualties. It's not easy to beat someone to death, but repetitive concussions of the brain can be dangerous, especially when victims aren't given enough time to recover. Both winners and losers must have been seriously wounded after a fight, suffering from a variety of broken and bruised body parts: noses, ribs, teeth, jaws, fingers, etc. 

(1) Norton and Ali met three times, and all three fights were very close. The first and most famous fight was won by Norton on split decision (the referee and one judge gave it to Norton, the other judge gave it to Ali). In this fight Norton allegedly broke Ali's jaw early on into the fight, but some have suggested that Ali made this up to explain his defeat. The fight went to full length and a broken jaw would have made the loss heroic. Ali then won the revenge, again on split decision (this time 2-1 in his favor. The third and final fight was very controversial: Ali won it (right: on split decision) but many observers felt Norton was the real winner. It's often said that the third fight between the two men marked the beginning of the decline of Ali's career.


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