347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom; AKA Farewell Uncle Tom

“If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls.”–Harriet Ann Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A helicopter flies over a cotton field being worked by slaves in the antebellum south; two unseen men enter a plantation, and the matron of the family introduces them as “Italian journalists” performing an “inquest” into slavery. The time-traveling documentarians then take their camera into a slave ship, follow a slave trader, tour various plantations and slave auctions, and encountering Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Makepeace Thackeray, among other adventures. In a flash-forward, an African-American reads “The Confessions of Nat Turner” on the beach and imagines black militants breaking into white households and killing all the inhabitants with axes.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • In the 1960s and pioneered what came to be known as the “mondo” film (after the title of their first movie, 1962’s Mondo Cane [Dog’s World]). These “shockumentaries” documented bizarre behavior around the world, with a heavy emphasis on sex and violence: Cane contained scenes of Asians eating dogs and elderly people passing away in Singapore’s “death hotel.” Their final contribution to the genre was 1966’s Africa Addio, which chronicled turmoil in post-colonial Africa and included several scenes of political prisoners being summarily executed by paramilitary squads (along with footage of slaughtered hippos and elephants). Africa Addio was extremely controversial, and Jacopetti and Prosperi were even accused of racism for making it. Goodbye Uncle Tom, their first fictional film, was a response to those accusations: they wanted to make a movie that was clearly and unambiguously anti-racist, and chose American slavery as their subject.
  • The movie was mainly shot in Haiti, with some locations in the United States, after Brazil and several other countries refused to allow Jacopetti and Prosperi to shoot there due to their bad reputation. Production lasted for two years.
  • The film was recut several times for different markets; in its original American release, the Nat Turner-inspired coda was removed as too incendiary, fearing it might spark copycat murders or riots. (Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke agreed, theorizing that the movie was a Jewish conspiracy to incite a race war.)
  • The film was a financial and critical flop.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Your eye may be stunned by the acres upon acres of nude African flesh in the crowd scenes. We chose to focus on the final image, however; the modern black doctor squeezing the white boy’s beach ball until it pops, his fingers straining with a pent-up century’s worth of tension and rage, grinning maniacally.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plantation helicopter; virgin seductress; afro-massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians, is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity. A time-traveling mockumentary full of rape, degradation, gore, and ambiguous moral outrage, Goodbye Uncle Tom is almost weirder in its conception and backstory than its execution.


An edited trailer for Goodbye Uncle Tom

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their helicopter over the cotton fields as slaves and their white overseers wave at them welcomingly, 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 Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray (who shows up to criticize the “peculiar institution” as economically inefficient). What is most memorable, however, are the parade of degrading scenes (based on real historical practices) depicting the harsh realities of the slave trade: teeth being knocked out for force-feeding, mass enemas, castration, and rape, rape, rape. The camera lingers on naked brown flesh, as human chattel is herded from place to place; especially unforgettable is a scene of hundreds of stripped slaves, newly arrived from Africa, battling each other to eat slop from a trough. If nothing else, 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 South. Uncle Tom paints the plantation as a giant interracial brothel. There are multiple rape scenes (scored to searing acid rock music that sounds uncomfortably triumphant), slaves and mulattos of both sexes used as prostitutes, and breeding sequences where “virile” slaves are kept like animals and put out to stud to impregnate terrified pre-teen females. Jacopetti and Prosperi even contrive to find a way to get a white Southern belle into the antebellum equivalent of a wet t-shirt, and end their movie on the beach, partly so that they can film a nubile frolicking blondes in a bikini (one of the team’s favorite recurring images, seen most notoriously in the jarring, jiggling scenes of South African girls jumping on trampolines in Africa Addio). Goodbye Uncle Tom may focus on the exploitation of blacks, but when it comes to objectification of women, Jacopetti and Prosperi are colorblind.

One of the most disturbing bits involves a girl, introduced as thirteen years old, seductively begging the Italian behind the camera to take her virginity (and offering him a whip), so that her hymen will be spared from being burst by 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. Like many of the slaves in Uncle Tom, the girl talks adopts the voice of racist fantasy: black appreciation of their masters’ beneficence in giving them a valuable role in civilized society, one suitable to their station. Later there’s an interview with a real Uncle Tom, who brags about his value (“I cost more than two thousand dollars!”) and proudly refers to his servitude as a “profession.” (He is almost certainly quoting some historical slave owner’s sophistry that’s been shoved into his mouth). The bedroom scene may be the filmmakers confession of complicity, their acknowledgement of the temptation of having absolute power over fellow human beings. 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 scandalized Southern belles discuss the unimaginable prospect of miscegenation (“bestiality!”), while the camera dwells on the impassive faces of house servants who have dark skin and blond hair. These brilliant moments only highlight 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. The documentary arrives about 150 years too late to expose the evils of slavery, and part of its problem is that its irony is so thick and detached that at times it almost wraps around itself to become racist propaganda. 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. Irony is a great tool to incite anger, but it does a poor job generating empathy.

One of the toughest criticisms Jacopetti and Prosperi had to face was the charge that they were exploiting the Haitian extras—descendants of slaves themselves—by casting them in a movie exploiting the horrors of slavery. Obviously, we have no records of how much they paid the actors, but it’s hard to imagine that the residents of this third world nation got Italian scale. The directors asked them to perform like trained animals: not only to pose nude, eating slop from troughs, or receive forced enemas, but in one case to be hung upside down (nude, or course) from their ankles for hours while the cameras filmed historically accurate punishment scenes. Probably, most participants were happy with the slight pay they received, and excited at the novelty of being on a movie set, particularly one with such an epic scope. But they had no idea what the finished project would be, and no benchmark to assess their own market value as extras. They all consented to appear in the movie, but did they have informed consent? Of course, we have no way of knowing how the Haitians felt about their part in Uncle Tom; it’s all speculation, our projection of how we might feel in their place. But that meta-speculation is another uncomfortable element in a movie that is almost nothing but uncomfortable moments.

In fact, Jacopetti and Prosperi keep finding new ways to make us uncomfortable, which is Goodbye Uncle Tom‘s greatest achievement. The project breaks not only the fourth wall, but also the fourth dimension. I take Jacopetti and Prosperi at their word when they say they made Goodbye Uncle Tom to rebut accusations of racism. I also think they were trying to make a kajillion dollars peddling this socially conscious sleaze to grindhouses around the world. These two motives are not incompatible, and the film provides ample evidence of both. The competing agendas, to titillate and shock and to enrage and inform, keep bumping up against each other, keeping you permanently off-balance and feeling queasy, but glued to the screen while it spins out its tale of horror. It’s impossible to leave this movie with a positive impression of Southern slavery—but then, no one had a good opinion of it beforehand. The surreal coda involving the table-turning massacre of white families is brave in its audacity—that poor baby!—but it’s hardly cathartic. Rather, the message seems to be that the wounds inflicted by slavery are too deep to heal, and that this antiquated system has given birth to centuries of hatred and a cycle of recurring violence. It’s a terrible, brutal exploitation movie—for a good cause. The selling of human beings as chattel, the twisted logic coming from both religion and science to justify such barbarism, is horrifying. But cynical Italians profiting by recreating these atrocities in “loving” detail years later is also disturbing. After all these years, it’s still a dog’s world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

“… it makes ROOTS look like an episode of THE JEFFERSONS… Set on a southern cotton plantation in the 1800’s, the weirdness kicks in when a helicopter full of filmmakers begin circling the place.”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

“The way they decided to make the film is almost hallucinatory in its strangeness: at the beginning of the movie a helicopter containing a time-traveling Italian documentary crew lands on the front lawn of a plantation, looking to film the reality of slavery. That opening shot, scored to the gorgeous sounds of Riz Ortolani’s music, is absolutely beautiful and also horrifying in its wrong-heaedness. It is Addio Zio Tom summed up.”–Dennis Faraci, “Birth. Movies. Death.”  (festival screening)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Goodbye Uncle Tom – Blue Underground’s page for their DVD release includes the not-safe-for-work original trailer

IMDB LINK: Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Provocateur Gualtiero Jacopetti Dead at 91: Honoring the Man Behind the Mondo Movies – This 2011 obituary in Time magazine has a lot of information about Uncle Tom

Eli Roth on GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM – Filmmaker Eli Roth annotates the (again, NSFW) trailer for the “Trailers from Hell” series

UK Premiere Goodbye Uncle Tom – Piece put together to promote the UK début of the film, with clips and thoughts from film critics and audience members

Inside the Most Racially Horrifying Movie Ever – The “Daily Beast’s” Jen Yamato describes a 2015 screening of the film at Fantastic Fest

Goodbye Uncle Tom (Film) – TV Tropes has a page devoted to Uncle Tom’s motifs

LIST CANDIDATE: GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971) – This site’s original List Candidate review of the film

HOME VIDEO INFO: This review is based on the original theatrical release of Goodbye Uncle Tom (known on DVD as the “English language version”) which was released in a single disc by Blue Underground (buy). The Uncle Tom disc includes about 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by cameraman Giampaolo Lomi (including rare footage of camera-shy dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier), along with a collection of stills also taken by Lomi and the original trailer.

For a few dollars more you can get Blue Underground’s “Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature Set” (buy) where the disc sits alongside Africa Blood and Guts (the English-language cut of Africa Addio) and the Jacopetti/Prosperi documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. This triple feature puts the film in greater context, since the filmmakers made Uncle Tom in response to the critic’s complaints about Africa Addio, and the documentary shows Jacopetti and Prosperi defending and explaining their choices in the latter movie (both admit that they went too far, and would make a different film today). Warning: Africa Addio is even more disturbing than Uncle Tom, since it features scenes with a number of actual unstaged deaths, both of humans and animals.

There is also a “Director’s Cut” of the film that takes a more obvious contemporary political stance. This alternate edit 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. (Other viewers report remembering a scene with a “white nympho” who seeks sex with slaves; this image is used for the DVD cover, despite not actually being in the film. We can’t confirm it’s in the director’s cut, but if anyone has seen it they can tell us in the comments.) Some consider this 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.

The film is also available for purchase or rental via video on demand.

(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 “347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)”

  1. Altogether, an accurate assessment. I’m of the mind that the controversial (that is, differently controversial) bedroom scene was included to illustrate that Everyone — the original perpetrators, the film-makers, and even the viewer — is complicit in the abomination. If they left anyone uncompromised, the film would have been less honest.

    I’d have advised them that perhaps “less is more” in this case, but I don’t think that’s a credo that the Mondo boys could ever have considered.

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