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Master-Slave Sex Acts: Mandingo and the Race/Sex Paradox

From: Wide Angle
Volume 21, Number 4, October 1999
pp. 42-61 | 10.1353/wan.2004.0005

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Wide Angle 21.4 (1999) 42-61

Mandingo and the Race/ Sex Paradox

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

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Figure 1
Slaves subjected to evaluation by slave buyers in Mandingo. Video frame enlargement.

Not quite blaxploitation and not quite plantation-genre film, Dino De Laurentis' Mandingo (1975) portrays the private sex act between masters and slaves as an intense paradoxical site of sexual pleasure and racial domination. Against a Hollywood history of representing rape and sexual assault of innocent white women by menacing black men such as in D.W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation (1915), Mandingo posits sex acts as the primary constitutive technology of racial domination in U.S. slavery while raising the possibility of mutuality, recognition, and affection between masters and slaves. The film's polemic proposal evades more serious engagement when most frequently described as a "trashy southern gothic that uses interracial sex as its steamy selling point" or as "a sadomasochistic Old South wonder" that capitalized on sex for box office profit. Prematurely, the film is dismissed as a pastorally racist project, that is, a telling of slavery from the point of view of slave sexual contentment. In this article, I explore how paying attention to sexual relations and the explicit sex act acknowledges the paradox of pleasure and violence in racial subjection.

Critics who prioritize race as the main analytic lens for understanding Mandingo celebrate its masculinist militant politics, or privilege revolution as the solution to slavery as an institution of absolute domination. Both moralistic dismissal and uncritical celebration of the film avoid how sex and sexuality function in the cinematic oeuvre of racial representation. The film's hypersexual representations of plantation era masters and slaves who desire each other exhibit a complex construction of racialized sexuality, i.e., how sexuality complicates how we understand racial subjection. That is, sexual practices, identities, and acts centrally constitute racial formation. In Mandingo, what occurs when the racial order is challenged at the site of the sex act is a confrontation of the para- dox of slavery, an antagonism between freedom and domination as defined by the Hegelian dialectic. I am interested in formulating an understanding of the relationship between sexual subjugation and racial subjectivity through a consideration of explicit sex acts between masters and slaves in 1970's representations of the plantation-era as both disciplining subjugation and liberatory self-formation for racial subjects. The moment of the sex act is not only a site of domination, but of self and subject formation as well.

To pay attention to the meanings of sexuality as such, is to confront the general tendency to fear and flee from complications netted by illicit sexuality that continues in racial discourses of representation today. Rather than flee from sex or ignore race, the racialized sex act is a scene where seemingly coherent racial identities fracture and transform in the realms of the intimate and in the larger world of racial slavery. To study sex acts within the context of everyday sustained brutality does not simply perpetuate enforced sexualized subjectivities for racial others, but actually acknowledges the specter of violence haunting racial and sexual relations and self-formations, especially when desires transgress normative bounds.

Sexual Practices and Racial Identities In Slavery

Breeding slaves, but not selling crops, the plantation of Mandingo is set in the American South at the turbulent dawn of abolition, where an aging slave master prepares his only son to take over the family plantation. The old master Maxwell instructs young Hammond to "purchase" a wife so as to sire an heir. For the purposes of breeding chattel, he must also buy a""Mandingo" buck, a male slave. In the film, a "Mandingo" represents the finest stock of slaves deemed most suitable for fighting and breeding. When Hammond realizes his new wife Blanche is not sexually pure, he purchases a virgin slave woman Ellen to be his "bed wench." In revenge, Blanche beats Ellen so she miscarries the master's child. Blanche also lures the Mede the Mandingo into a sexual relationship that produces a mixed race child. As a consequence, the furious master orders the death of the child and Blanche, casts off Ellen, shoots...

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