Ken Norton, the champion professional boxer who died this week, also had a long, though not equally distinctive, career as an actor. He will, however, be remembered for one role: that of a slave prize fighter, Mede, in the 1975 film, “Mandingo,” described variously by critics as a compelling slice of American Gothic and “a poor man’s version of Gone with the Wind.” The film was widely ridiculed when it was first released. The film, based on a late 19th century novel (by a Southern author) focuses on the goings on an isolated slave plantation somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama where all kinds of evils and brutality by the slave owners against their slaves (torture, rape, humiliation, deprivation, including boiling a slave alive in a vat of boiling water, etcetera) takes place. Norton’s character gets to kill his opponent in a fistfight “by tearing out his jugular with his teeth.” The result was so absurd, that no one took it seriously or were repulsed by it. As one critic has noted since then: “if one were to judge history by this film, it would be easy to walk away with the notion that the entire system of American slavery was based on sexuality, not economics.” Roger Ebert, reviewing it for the Chicago Sun Times when it first came out, decided it was “racist trash” and concluded “this is a film I felt soiled by.” Mandingo’s fanciful depictions of slavery was barely remembered until Quentin Tarantino basically remade it as “Django Unchained,” including the prize-fights between slaves subplot. Which should have made critics–who took Django literally or to mean something beyond its parts, rather than the send-up that it represents–pause.

 

Further Reading

After Bouteflika

A 2019 attempt to prolong the regime of Algeria’s incapacitated president Abdelaziz Bouteflika inspired the Hirak protest movement. Bouteflika died on September 17, 2021, but the Hirak marches on around the world