“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”
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 encounter 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.
In the 1960s Gualtiero Jacopetti andFranco Prosperi 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.
Goodbye Uncle Tom has been added to the list of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please read and comment on the official Certified Weird review. This post is closed to new comments.
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.
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.