LIST CANDIDATE: GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom

DIRECTED BY: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A pair of modern day Italian filmmakers visit the antebellum American south to make a documentary on 19th century slavery.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians Jacopetti and Prosperi partly to address accusations of racism in their previous movie Africa Addio (Goodbye Africa), is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity.

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their helicopter over the cotton fields as slaves and their white overseers wave at them, Goodbye Uncle Tom is one unusual movie. Much of the dialogue spoken is taken from actual pro- (and anti-) slavery texts, including the works of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, pseudoscientific and pseudoreligious justifications for racism, and an economist who criticizes the “peculiar institution” as inefficient. What is more memorable, however, are the parade of degrading scenes (that are based on real historical practices) depicting the harsh realities of the slave trade: teeth being knocked out for force-feeding, mass enemas, and castration. There are acres of naked brown flesh on display, as human chattel is herded from place to place; especially unforgettable is a scene of hundreds of nude extras, newly arrived from Africa, battling each other to eat slop from a trough. These scenes feature nudity on an epic scale that’s rarely been achieved in the movies.

The parade of atrocities is hard to watch and hard to stomach, but the case can be made that the filmmakers are simply recreating history in its full horror. What calls the high-mindedness of the project into question, however, are the unhealthy number of sequences devoted to the prurient sexual practices of the antebellum South. Uncle Tom depicts the plantation as a giant brothel. There are multiple rape scenes (scored to searing acid rock music that sounds uncomfortably triumphant), scenes of slaves and mulattos of both sexes used as prostitutes, and breeding scenes where “virile” slaves are kept like animals and put out to stud with terrified pre-teen females. The most disturbing bit involves a girl, introduced as thirteen years old, seductively begging a white man to take her virginity (and offering him a whip) so she will be spared losing it to a well-endowed slave. This is a pure sick male fantasy rendered in pornographic detail, and it’s far too direct to work as satire. Jacopetti and Prosperi were capable of getting their point about the sexual politics of slavery across with subtlety and wit—there is a brilliantly ironic scene where oblivious Southern belles discuss the unthinkable prospect of miscegenation, while the camera dwells on the impassive faces of house servants who clearly have partially Caucasian features—which only highlights the gratuitous sleaze of the pure titillation scenes. Like Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi’s bloody previous documentary on post-colonial political turmoil in Africa, Uncle Tom somehow manages to be  condescending and progressive, cynical and humanistic, all at the same time. One scene may cause a Klansman in the audience to stand up and clap, while the next minute it’s a Black Panther who’s cheering. The documentary as a whole arrives about 150 years too late to expose the evils of slavery, but there is a brave and surreal coda in which a modern black man reads passages from “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and imagines the bloody massacre of a white suburban family.

This review is based on the original theatrical release of Goodbye Uncle Tom (known on DVD as the “English language version”). The version of Uncle Tom reviewed here was taken from Blue Underground’s “Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature Set,” where the disc sits alongside Africa Blood and Guts (Africa Addio) and the Jacopetti/Prosperi documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. The Uncle Tom disc includes about 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by cameraman Giampaolo Lomi. There is also a “Director’s Cut” of the film that takes a more obvious contemporary political stance. This alternate edit of the film cuts out about 30 minutes of plantation scenes, such as the bizarre sequence with a swaddled veterinarian examining newly arrived slaves, and replaces them with then-contemporary footage of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., including footage of black comedian Dick Gregory’s 1968 presidential run. Some consider this to be a more politically relevant, less exploitative presentation of the film. To our knowledge it’s only available in the 8-disc “Mondo Cane Collection” set from Blue Underground (buy), which includes both cuts of Uncle Tom along with Mondo Cane and Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, two different versions of Africa Addio, and The Godfathers of Mondo.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tally Isham, who called it a “jaw-droppingly bizarre and offensive pseudo-documentary.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “LIST CANDIDATE: GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)”

  1. Nice to read your angle on this one, Mr Smalley. Even if it doesn’t make the list, it’s a one of a kind.

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