By Simon Abrams | The Playlist December 28, 2012 at 1:00PM
This list is not intended to reflect the “best” of the slavesploitation genre for a couple of reasons. Practically speaking, it’s hard to track down copies of films like “Slaves,” a now-impossible-to-find 1969 drama starring and scored by Dionne Warwick. It’s harder still to qualitatively evaluate many of these films since they are all to some extent hard to watch. Still, since slavesploitation narratives are a primary source of inspiration of Tarantino, here are a couple of noteworthy examples. They are organized chronologically.
5 'Slavesploitation' Movies
“Goodbye, Uncle Tom” is definitely the most singularly sleazy movie on this list. Co-directed and written by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (“Mondo Cane,” “Africa Addio”), “Goodbye, Uncle Tom” is a mockumentary that revels in dramatized scenes where naked slaves are abused and sexually mistreated. Ardent admirers of Federico Fellini’s films, Jacopetti and Prosperi aspired to a similarly carnivalesque atmosphere, best epitomized by musical composer Rizo Ortolani’s two main musical themes. Their film is much harder to watch than even “Satyricon” however, because it’s an ostensibly empowering film that also uses scenes where characters are graphically tortured, molested and humiliated for the sake of justifying a misguided cultural revolution. In the film’s concluding scenes, the diary of Nat Turner is read in voiceover narration as angry black men shoot and chop up white bourgies with guns and axes. This is after Busby Berkeley-style panoplies of naked slaves are shown in a ship’s brig while Jacopetti and Prosperi snicker via voiceover narration about how some slaves were force-fed yams and then made to live in their own diarrhea for days. The sarcastic and jeering pseudo-intellectual aspects of Jacopetti and Prosperi’s film are what makes “Goodbye, Uncle Tom” both so vile and so compelling. After a fashion, these filmmakers really did believe in the subversive power of their crass spectacle. So while Jacopetti and Prosperi’s invitations to incite a race riot are basically bullshit, the fact that they’re not trying to be benignly exploitative is also almost refreshing.
The most controversial thing about “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” the first film in a trilogy, is its button-pushing title (its first sequel was also called, “The Soul of Nigger Charley”). But it’s also noteworthy as being a rare slavesploitation film starring an acknowledged blaxploitation star. Fred Williamson (“Black Caesar,” “Hell Up in Harlem”) stars as Charley, a slave that’s been promised his freedom when his master dies, but predictably doesn’t get it. Charley and two other slaves must then run away from their dead master’s vindictive son. Williamson’s lead performance distinguishes “The Legend of Nigger Charley” from other slavesploitation films. He doesn’t have much to work with, and he certainly doesn’t have much range, either. But he really makes “The Legend of Nigger Charley” work when it most needs to, as in scenes where Charley wonders aloud if there is in fact a fundamental difference in character between black and white men. If the film’s conclusion, in which Charley accepts that there is in fact an empowering difference, is at all effective, it’s because of Williamson’s charisma.
As with many exploitation films, “Black Snake” is mostly memorable for its stand-out scenes of explicit sexuality and cruel violence. Let it never be said that director Russ Meyer didn’t know how to pander to his audience. For example, the film is more focused on Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), the film’s cruel, whip-cracking white slave owner, than on any singular slave hero. Meyer’s film also anticipates and goes further in exploring some of the pseudo-moral questions in “Mandingo” by prominently featuring Bernard Boston as Captain Raymond Daladier, a cruel, French-speaking black taskmaster from Jamaica. Like many other grand guignol-inspired slavesploitation films, Meyer’s movie assumes that any character that has a modicum of power but fails to sympathize with slaves deserves whatever punishment they get. The slave uprising that concludes the film is perfunctory since the film is only ostensibly empowering. But the film’s main selling points, like seeing Hempel’s ample buttocks massaged in close-up, are certainly memorable, perhaps because “Black Snake” was Meyer’s first independent film after his brief stint making studio-produced films “The Seven Minutes” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” “Black Snake” is a slight movie, but it is a superior expression of the kind of 'what-if' scenario that Tarantino plays around with in “Django Unchained,” a comedy that effectively argues for the symbolic importance of historical role-playing in exploitation cinema.
A good part of why “Mandingo” remains a controversial film is that it was produced and distributed by a major American movie studio, specifically Paramount Pictures. The opening credits boast that an elderly James Mason stars in the film, though he only has a supporting role. Still, the fact that the studio could sell Mason’s star power in the first place is a reminder that the film was a major release. Director Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s novel may seem tame compared to some other films on this list, especially “Goodbye, Uncle Tom.” But Fleischer also doesn’t apologize for his film’s disreputability, as in an early scene where he films a slave’s exposed breast out-of-focus but directly in the foreground during an early bedside conversation. “Mandingo” is basically a racy feature-length soap opera that redundantly concludes that it was impossible for a slave to advance, even if he or she attracted the fickle attention of his/her master. Together with his father Warren (Mason), a doddering, rheumatism-afflicted plantation owner, young and cruel Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) becomes obsessed with his new slave Ganymede (Ken Norton). Ganymede is trained to fight other Mandingo slaves but he soon realizes that he only has a token position of power over other slaves. Within the context of a studio-produced film, relatively graphic scenes, like when a stripped slave is paddled until his buttocks bleed, are still shocking. But “Mandingo” is not otherwise sensational.
A sequel to “Mandingo,” “Drum” is more titillating than its predecessor because it goes farther in insinuating what was really wrong with slave owners. In “Mandingo,” Richard Fleischer suggests that slave owners’ interest in their slaves was primarily sexual in nature, but never as overtly as the creators of “Drum,” which features a scene where an openly gay older slave owner tries to force his male slave to have sex with him. In fact, in spite of how muddled “Drum” ultimately is, it's more compelling than “Mandingo” because it’s also more explicitly concerned with presumed sexual promiscuity and deviancy. Ken Norton plays Drum, Ganymede’s 20 year-old son. Drum is predictably fated to not only follow in his father’s pugnacious footsteps, he also learns that there’s no way to enjoy the weird modicum of power that a favored slave is allowed. Warren Oates plays an older but not-much-wiser Hammond Maxwell, Drum’s master and probably the most sexually frank slave-owner in the film. For example, Hammond wants his daughter’s governess to be a prostitute so she herself doesn’t become a prostitute. Realistically, “Drum” is mostly just a strong variation on the themes that were previously sketched out in “Mandingo.” It has a stronger supporting cast, including Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto, and is certainly less unpleasant. But it’s ultimately more incoherent, albeit fitfully thoughtful.
How many have you seen? Thoughts? Weight in below.