One of the most gruesome scenes in Quentin Tarantino's new blaxploitation western "Django Unchained" involves blackhearted plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) presiding over a Roman-style bare-handed battle to the death between his hulking champion slave Samson (Jordon Michael Corbin) and a much less fortunate slave opponent.
After all the eye gauging and head hammering was through, we wondered if this betting "sport," known within the movie as "Mandingo Fighting," was based on true accounts of pre-Civil War Mississippi or if Tarantino made it up out of whole cloth.
This is, after all, the same Tarantino who let Eli Roth machine gun Hitler in the face for "Inglourious Basterds," so the level of historical accuracy is about on par with what we'd expect from a guy who didn't graduate from high school. That's not meant as a dig on the auteur, of course, as the man has perhaps one of the most thorough knowledge bases of both black culture and film history among any director in Hollywood, but he's definitely less interested in realism than he is in f**king people's shit up.
So was Mandingo Fighting real? Probably not.
We talked to Edna Greene Medford, Professor and chairperson of the history department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., about whether there's any basis in non-Tarantinized fact.
"My area of expertise is slavery, Civil War, and reconstruction and I have never encountered something like that," said Professor Medford. "It was rumored to have occurred. I don't know that it was called Mandingo Fighting, however, but 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 that, no. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen in some backwater area, but I've never seen any evidence of it."
This was the wild, wild South, after all, so "anything goes" tended to rule the day, but the main reason Medford thinks the idea of Mandingo Fighting is preposterous comes down to one thing: Simple economics.
"It's a stretch because enslaved people are property, and people don't want to lose their property unless they're being reimbursed for it," she said. "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. I've looked at slave narratives and I've never seen something like that in slave narratives."
As for the etymology of the term "Mandingo," it comes from a West African ethnic group called the Mandinka, but was popularized in the late '50s with the racy novel by Kyle Onstott that also became a 1975 movie called "Mandingo," which Tarantino has praised alongside "Showgirls" as one of the few big budget exploitation pictures made by a studio.
The subject of the film? A slave trained to fight other slaves. "Mandingo, the pride of his masters! Mandingo, the strongest and the bravest!"
"The term has been used to refer to that ethnic group," clarified Medford, "but it has also come to personify the very powerful enslaved man who's rather ferocious. It's equivalent to 'the big black buck,' it's more of a recent term."
Even though none of what takes place in "Django Unchained" is true-blue history, it still manages to be "yeehaw!" entertaining while shedding light on something that most Americans try to forget happened so they can go on happily with their Christmas shopping. It's also not Tarantino's first use of black bounty hunters or "Mandingo" either, as he combined both into one of Samuel L. Jackson's more memorably un-PC lines from 1997's "Jackie Brown" in reference to Robert Forster's prisoner retriever Winston (Tommy 'Tiny' Lister): "Who's that big, Mandingo-looking n****r you got up there on that picture with you?"
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