Sunday, February 21, 2010

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971, Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi)


"Makes Roots look like an episode of The Jeffersons" so states one of the quotes on this DVD cover. If those aren't strong words then I don't know what are. The title alone makes it pretty obvious that the film has something to do with slavery, a very touchy subject for most people. The fact anyone could enslave another human being, not to mention treat a whole race of people as if they are inferior is disgusting and seems so hard to believe in this day and age. This film is one of those "I dare you to watch it" types, though unlike many of other films lumped into that category, this film is based on true events. It's hard to tell how much of the film was embellished by the pseudo-documentary style and previous exploits of the film makers, but it is obvious there is a lot of truth displayed in this film. Displayed being a very soft term. More like thrown in your face. The film I am talking about is the last of the Mondo films by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi - Goodbye Uncle Tom.

Goodbye Uncle Tom begins at a 1800s renaissance-y dinner party featuring a conversation on Black people. The guests consider them unintelligent and inferior to whites. Next thing you know, we are on board a ship transporting hundreds of black slaves from Africa to the United States. The treatment of the people as being no more than animals is very hard to watch. The film focuses heavily on how the slaves were "cleaned up" when they were brought over and sold off. The film also shows how all of this is seen through the eyes of a black man today.

Goodbye Uncle Tom is one of the hardest movies I've ever sat through. I actually almost turned it off after about 20 minutes but decided to stick with it. Seeing other humans treated with such degradation is infuriating, not to mention sickening. Slaves are shown being pulled along on chain leashes and forced to breed like dogs. As I stated before, it's hard to tell what facts were stretched to enrage the viewer but it doesn't really matter. The fact slavery occurred at all is really enough to anger me. Without reading too much into it, it would seem that Jacopetti and Prosperi obviously attempted to make a film so outrageous and explicit that it would really make people see how severe the injustices were that the slaves endured. Unfortunately, the film goes way overboard to nauseating extremes and sort of loses the viewers in exploitation territory. The film makers have been called "devious" and "irresponsible" documentarians. Though there are parts of the film that are fascinating, I agree that the way the film is presented muddles the film makers' intentions, causing the audience uncertainty as to whether they are passionate about getting their point across or just exploiting their subject. The final scenes in the film, set in the present day, really insult the viewer and almost nullify the message of the film makers' (assumed) intentions. I can't say I would recommend this film to anyone, nor would I tell people to stay away from it. Those who would want to see it know who they are.

Note - the version I watched was the English version contained in Blue Underground's out of print Shockumentaries Volume 2, which is now available as a single disc. There is an extended Italian Director's Cut version on the Shockumentary: Extreme Collection, also released by Blue Underground and is readily available.

RATING: 5/10

3 comments:

  1. Let me clear one thing up for you: a good majority of the 'facts' of this film are made up or exaggerated to extremes.

    Two examples: they mention Andrew Jackson running runaway slave hunts & show French nuns keeping slaves. Both are horribly false in every way.

    Aside from that, we have the slaves humping like rabbits and the freaky, BLACK slave trader who runs the brothel. This is also the same character who implies- but does not show- that he has a 'mandingo' with three dicks. Why? Who knows or cares?

    A good companion piece for this would be the documentary ABOUT the two directors, the only documentary with their names on it that has any validity. In it, they apologize for the film, but also defend major parts of it. That's a much more recommended viewing.

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  2. The Italian version of Uncle Tom isn't just an extended version of the US edition. Each version has scenes that aren't in the other, and scenes the two have in common are sometimes in different order. The scene with the intellectual slave explaining why his condition is preferable to wage labor, for instance,isn't in the Italian cut.

    The major problem with Addio Zio Tom is that the directors, claiming good intentions, wished to show the degradation of the enslaved Africans, but created the impression for many people that Africans were simply degraded, perhaps even before they were enslaved. I can understand their not wanting to do an ahistorical account of consistent heroic resistance to slavery, but the approach they chose makes it too easy for viewers to assume that there's just something wrong with black people. Uncle Tom is a powerful yet dangerous film in either version that people should watch with care.

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  3. Yeah, I watched the Uncut Italian version & did not get the scene you're referring to. I guess I should be glad.

    Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the movie presents the idea that everyone was okay with slavery. They weren't! It was a taboo thing even when it was commonplace. I know how weird and confusing that sounds.

    The idea that slavery was 'explained by the Bible' for many people is just wrong. They were just lazy and greedy. Why should you try and 'sugar-coat' that?

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