The Dirty South
From Mandingo to Whity and Beyond: Your Guide to 100 Years of the Cinema of Plantation Porn
By Dennis Harvey
Reading time 22 Minutes
When Staten Island lunatic Andy Milligan
When Staten Island lunatic Andy Milligan shot House of Seven Belles, his spin on Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, not for nothing did he set it on a plantation during the Civil War. The Southern setting was an anomaly for the auteur of such no-budget grindhouse epics as Torture Dungeon and The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! But its mix of melodramatic hysteria and violent mayhem was right up his alley – and those attributes also placed the never-released feature soundly within a nouvelle Southern Gothic genre that had been staining paperbacks, celluloid and sheets for decades.
In 1956 America was shocked and titillated by Peyton Place, a novel by New Hampshire housewife Grace Metalious that ripped “the lid off a respectable New England town,” revealing that practically every citizen there was fixated on…sex. Not many were actually having any, but the mere notion that these outwardly upright Yankees were inwardly thinking about “it” all the time was enough to make the book a popular sensation. “Everyone” read it, even if few had the nerve to be seen doing so in public. “Peyton Place” became a catchphrase for sexual hypocrisy, prudishness masking lasciviousness; Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick said a few years later that this “horny book” constituted her teenage Sex Ed.
Yet the very next year another novel appeared that was almost equally scandalous, popular and influential, yet much less discussed as a national phenomenon – if only because it was viewed mostly as “a Southern thing.” That would be Mandingo, another lurid potboiler by a first time novelist. But where Grace M. was a New England wife and mother aged just 30 when fame hit (she’d be dead of alcoholism before 40), Kyle Onstott was already 70 years old, a “lifelong bachelor” and dog breeder who never actually lived in the South he famously wrote about. He just wanted to write a book that would make a mint – and it did, as well as generating a pulp series that continued long after his 1966 death.
A seamy riposte to the hoop-skirt soap opera of Gone With the Wind, Mandingooffered a world in which the “genteel” Old South of mint juleps and gentlemen suitors was replaced by a tawdry, steaming landscape of flesh either being pleasured or lashed. Its white characters appraise black ones like livestock, and treat them like sex toys. It was so shocking it had to be true! Or so thought millions of titillated readers. This portrait of pre-Civil War plantation life had ripple effects well beyond the dime store paperback rack.
Yet while Peyton Place was rushed to the big screen, albeit in somewhat sanitized form, Onstott’s tale of interracial Alabama sex, sadism, rape, and murder defied Hollywood adaptation for nearly two decades. And when a film finally came out in the middle of the “permissive” Me Decade, even in 1975 the results were considered appallingly tasteless. But during that long wait, plenty of filmmakers less skittish than the major studios grasped the commercial value of peddling plantation smut and began tarnishing the silver screen with that fragrant loam.
In Onstott’s original book, set in 1832, elderly plantation owner Warren Maxwell pushes his son to marry a cousin in order to produce an heir. But Hammond is only sexually interested in black women, and in “breeding” the farm’s slave population to produce salable new “bucks” and “bed-wenches.” The catalog of calamities that ensues includes fatal fights (male slaves are set against each other for gambling spectators), incest, miscarriages, whipping, and cannibalism.
Though certainly violent, Mandingo and its numerous sequels (most penned pseudonymously by pulp journeymen) relied on the “taboo” appeal of miscegenation and a raft of racial and sexual stereotypes. The “forbidden fruit” allure of sex (consensual or otherwise) between races had already long been a hot exploitation topic in various media – usually in a fear-mongering or “cautionary” way.
In 1915 D.W. Griffith’s infamous The Birth of a Nation celebrated the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, particularly in their avenging the savaged purity of white women threatened by the uncontrollable libidos of black men (played by whites in blackface). The political backlash to that hugely successful film curtailed subsequent screen depictions, and the Production Code installed in the early 1930s specifically forbade any suggestion of interracial intimacy. But thirty years later, such set-in-stone censorship rules were beginning to erode.
First to jump in were those racy Europeans, who’d always been a few steps ahead of the U.S. film industry in “frankness.” The 1959 I Spit on Your Graveflipped the gender focus of prior, polite American films like Pinky and Imitation of Life, in which “high yellow” mixed-race heroines “passed” as white, simply seeking a better life. In this adaptation of Boris Vian’s sordid French bestseller (published under a fake Yankee author’s name), a similarly light-skinned hero passes to avenge his darker brother’s murder – by sleeping with nearly the entire female population of the lily-white town where he was killed.
That was a lot more than Hollywood was prepared to handle. Even in 1967, interracial romance onscreen was no more smoldering than the squeaky-clean spectacle of Katherine Houghton bringing home the Least Objectionable Negro On Earth, Sidney Poitier, to the amazement of parents Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? The same year, Poitier would also star in Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, the most respectable amongst what one might call the era’s “This town is a powder-keg set to explode!” Southern racial melodramas. Considerably less admired were such starry enterprises as Arthur Penn’s The Chase (written by Lillian Hellman and Horton Foote) and Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, in which African-American characters were mostly background victims to the decadent white folks.
All these respectable artistes’ self-important hand-wringing was shamed by the lowdown sleaze of Joseph G. Prieto’s 1967 Shanty Tramp, in which the titular hillbilly hellion seduces a black “boy,” cries rape when caught, gets him killed just cuz, then rides into the sunset with a evangelical preacher who smirks he’s “gonna show that shanty tramp the power and the glory.” As with the Mandingo books themselves, this grade-Z grindhouse gem got away with it because its audience was almost exclusively in the South.
But as Black Pride (and white fear)
But as Black Pride (and white fear) made such modern-day victim depictions unfashionable by the end of the 60s, two new genres emerged. One was “blaxploitation,” the famed early 70s flowering of action movies in which black heroes like Shaft and Superfly (plus occasional heroines, often played by Pam Grier) upended the traditional power balance, triumphing over “honkies” through means legal or otherwise.
The second was lesser-sung, but deliciously overripe: A brief vogue of what you might call softcore plantation porn, period Southern Gothics tailored for a permissive new era in which miscegenation – along with nudity, gore and cussin’ – was no longer off-limits onscreen. First up was Slaves (1969), a loose spin on the anti-slavery chestnut Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Stephen Boyd from Ben-Hur as a cruel master who requisitions singer Dionne Warwick’s Cassy as his mistress, only to see her join Ossie Davis in a bloody revolt against him. It was a tame treatment of the subject, and was not particularly successful – though its box-office fortunes improved once it was re-released on a drive-in double bill with Night of the Living Dead, of all things.
Not tame in the least was the 1971 Italian feature best known as Farewell, Uncle Tom. It was the first fully staged narrative film by Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, who had pioneered the “shockumentary” genre with Mondo Cane (1962), a global hit that simply cataloged bizarre and grotesque behaviors (much real, some staged) around the world. Addio Zio Tomadapted that sensationalist sensibility to a pageant of historical horrors in which a cast of thousands reenacted graphic scenes of rape, torture and murder in the African slave trade. Presented as a pseudo-documentary, and drawing explicit connections to the modern Black Power Movement, it shocked American critics, Pauline Kael calling it a “rabid incitement to race war.” Nonetheless, it might’ve become a huge hit in the year of the similarly revolution-minded Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song if heavy censorship and outright banning in various territories hadn’t so hobbled its distribution.
Farewell, Uncle Tomwas shot in Haiti and may have ultimately lost money, but other producers smelled green. The result was at least two quickie knockoffs: 1971’s Quadroon, a Louisiana joint from the director of a subsequent movie called Mardi Gras Massacre; and 1973’s plantation revolt potboiler Blacksnake, a rare flop by sexploitation great Russ Meyer. These movies were edging ever closer to straight-up Mandingo itself, which meanwhile had gotten a failed 1961 Broadway staging (with pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper as Hammond Maxwell) yet remained resistant to Hollywood adaptation.
By the mid-70s, however, “porno chic,” the blaxploitation craze, and other nose-thumbings to old standards of good taste suggested that it might be time at last to put undiluted Kyle Onstott on the big screen. That moment finally arrived in in 1975, when Paramount Pictures – which at the time was releasing quintessential “New Hollywood” prestige items like Chinatown, Nashvilleand The Godfather Part II – decided to get a little dirty in tandem with famed producer Dino De Laurentiis, who’d acquired the film rights.
Their Mandingo was not a shoddy affair: It was expensively mounted, directed by the able if undiscriminating Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Doolittle, The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green, et al.), and starred the estimable James Mason as Warren Maxwell. Perry King and Straw Dogs’ Susan George played the discordantly married junior Maxwells, who find more agreeable sex partners in slaves Brenda Sykes and (boxer-turned-sorta-actor) Ken Norton, respectively.
Among those who turned the project down flat were Charlton Heston, Jeff Bridges and Jan-Michael Vincent. (One who wanted in was O.J. Simpson, but he had to settle instead for the modern-day “exploding powder-keg” movie, 1974 bomb The Klansman.) No doubt they counted themselves lucky when Mandingo premiered, the cast and crew widely excoriated for participating in such lurid trash. Told by advertising to “Expect the savage. The sensual. The shocking. The powerful. The shameful…. Expect the truth,” critics alternated between doubling over with laughter and regurgitation. The New York Times published an entire essay headlined “What Makes a Movie Immoral?” Andrew Sarris opined that “On the scale of stinkiness Mandingo rates somewhere between garbage and sewage.”
None of that mattered: Mandingo was still among the year’s top 20 at the box-office, the disdain of Yankee tastemakers perhaps only heightening its inevitable appeal in the South. It was treated with somewhat greater respect by press abroad, where once again the Italians recognized an exploitation goldmine when they saw it. Within a year, that nation had coughed up both Emanuelle White & Black and (what else but) Mandinga, cheap ’n’ cheerful softcore romps whose insatiable white she-devil protagonists drop their hoop skirts at every opportunity for partners of various races and genders.
Paramount didn’t seem to mind, or notice, the competition – they were too busy rushing into theaters a sequel based on the Mandingo novel’s direct follow-up. Drumwas another elaborate enterprise, with Ken Norton acting even more stiffly than before – albeit in a different role, since his Mandingo character had been boiled alive. But this production was as troubled as the earlier one had been smooth. The original director got fired mid-shoot; a threatened X rating eventually led Paramount to dump the film, and there were cuts so severe that when second-billed Isela Vega (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) showed up for the film’s premiere in her native Mexico, she discovered her part had been almost completely eliminated.
Posters screamed “Mandingo Lit The Fuse – Drum Is the Explosion!,” but the July 1976 United Artists release was a dud. However, if Mandingo has gained stature in some quarters since, its sequel has only accumulated camp value as the Showgirls of plantation cheese. Was it even intended to be taken seriously? At one memorable juncture, Warren Oates’ horndog slave trader is interrupted a-bedding “property” Regine (no less than Pam Grier) by his nymphomaniac daughter’s snippy governess, to whom he complains “Now, Miss Augusta, you ain’t gonna start meddlin’ round with mah poontang, is ya?”
The next year, the miniseries Roots premiered on television, and subsequently America did not feel like laughing over slavery or the Old South or any combination thereof for a long time to come. (Perhaps not until Django Unchained – and even in that sendup of plantation melodramas, Jamie Foxx’s ex-slave is a figure of humorless dignity.) Blaxploitation had already faded out in favor of more acceptably uplifting big-screen representations of African Americans. The few antebellum melodramas shot thenceforth sought to ennoble the suffering of the slave era, not milk it for vicarious thrills.
Still, there were a few last spasms of the Celluloid Southern Sex Gothic. In 1978 Mexico produced something called Fuego Negro aka Black Fire, another slavesploitation serving, if one consumed by very few spectators. The next year the inimitable Andy Milligan imitated the form with his unfinished House of Seven Belles, which in his characteristic fashion offers plenty of murderous hysteria amongst frustrated Civil War-era white women in crinoline – but no actual sex, or even black people. (It is possible that a “hoodoo woman” character speaking in a bizarre patois is meant to be black, but Milligan or his performer refused to let her makeup be more than a dark beige.) Perhaps those lacks led to its never being completed, or released.
Equally hidden away, at least for a couple decades, was the perverse parody of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity, a film so loathed on its debut at the 1971 Berlin Film Festival that it was never seen again during RWF’s lifetime. That deadpan satire of Westerns, Southern Gothics and U.S. racial relations in general has a household of rich white spiritual vacuums kept more-or-less alive, then finally put out of their misery – by the titular mulatto butler. When it finally saw the light of day years later, Whity could be appreciated for what it was: a minor black-comedy masterpiece.
Still waiting for its moment of recognition is 1979’s The Ballad of Annabelle Lee, an hour-long miracle of unintentional surrealism by Unarius Academy of Science. That very Southern Californian, UFO-centered religious cult has its own cult following for a series of elaborate amateur film projects made in the 70s and early 80s, notably sci-fi epic The Arrival (1980). In them, the church’s co-founder Ruth Norman aka “Uriel” plays a variety of historical and fantastical figures, many somehow looking like Glinda the Good Witch. In Annabelle Lee, the already-elderly lady portrays the flower of the Old South, cavorting on riverboats and plantation lawns, fussed over by adoring “darkies” who look very much like twentysomething gay men having the time of their lives in blackface. There is no sex or violence here, but if the South should ever rise again, Ballad is just the thing to make it drop dead in shock.
Dennis Harvey is a longtime film critic for Variety. He has also written for the Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, Fandor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other print and online publications.