Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)

Five years after Africa Blood and Guts, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi returned with this movie, which is pretty much one of the roughest films I’ve ever made it through.

This was shot primarily in Haiti, where the directors were the guests of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, who gave them diplomatic cars, clearance to film anywhere on the island and as many extras as they required to be used as slaves being treated exactly as slaves were. They were also invited to a nightly dinner with Duvalier himself.

If your mind isn’t already blown, stick around.

Goodbye Uncle Tom is based on true events in which the filmmakers explore America in slavery times, using published documents and materials from the public record to make what they consider a documentary, even claiming to go back in time to achieve this level of realism.

This movie was made in opposition to the claims that Africa Blood and Guts was racist. It didn’t work, as Roger Ebert would say, “They have finally done it: Made the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.” He also stated that “This movie itself humiliates its actors in the way the slaves were humiliated 200 years ago.”

The movie was originally released in Italy in a 119-minute version and was immediately withdrawn. I’ve read that the directors were sued for plagiarism by writer Joseph Chamberlain Furnas. It was then re-released with 17 more minutes of footage.

The directors’ cut shows a comparison between the horrors of slavery and the rise of the Black Power Movement, ending with an unidentified black man’s fantasy of living out William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. In that book, Turned is divinely inspired and given a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.

This ending upset American distributors so much that they forced Jacopetti and Prosperi to cut more than thirteen minutes of racial politics that would upset their audiences. Pauline Kael still said that the movie was “the most specific and rabid incitement to race war,” a view shared with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who said that Goodbye Uncle Tom was a Jewish conspiracy to incite blacks on white violence.

This movie is not for everyone. But I feel that it needs to be seen. I rarely get political on this site, but in truth, I feel that we as a country have not done enough to understand the roots of the black experience. While an Italian exploitation film isn’t the best way to learn more, it’s a start.

It’s no accident that Cannibal Holocaust would eventually use the music of Riz Ortolani to juxtapose the horrific images on screen with the beauty of his compositions. The composer had been working with the duo since Mondo Cane, where his song “More” nearly won an Oscar.

But make no mistake that this movie, while intending to be educational and anti-racist, still employs the tools of the mondo and exploitation. How else do you describe the conceit that these filmmakers have gone back in time, taking a helicopter with them that they use to fly away from the terrors of the plantation at the end?

In 2010, Dr. David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, said that when he showed this film to a class, it led to some major traumas. “On the day that we watched Goodbye Uncle Tom three students had unexcused absences, several cried while watching, one almost vomited; most sat, sad and disgusted. I taught for another fifteen years but I never showed that movie again.”

He went on to say that the film “is a more truthful portrayal of the brutality and obscenity of slave life than was Roots; however, I have some major problems with the film. I find it ironic that a movie that explored the exploitation and degradation of Black people was filmed in a way that exploited and degraded Black people. In some ways Goodbye Uncle Tom was just a XXX movie set against the backdrop of slavery; the “peculiar institution” served as an excuse to show sexual and violent gore. Jacopetti and Prosperi told a great many painful truths about slavery but they debased hundreds of Blacks to make the film.”

“I said all of that to say this: Jacopetti and Prosperi were not the messengers that I would have selected, and their implied assumptions about Blacks are troubling, but they made a movie that accurately portrayed the horrors of slavery. Of course, it is the case that a realistic depiction of the savagery of slavery would be difficult to watch no matter who made it. This is why when you finish watching Roots you may feel that a family has overcome great oppression and a nation has become more democratic; whereas when you finish watching Goodbye Uncle Tom you just feel sick to your stomach.”

That says a lot about this movie in a better way than I can, but I’m still going to try to sum it up: this is a well-made movie that may have been made with the best of intentions, but was made by two people who only had the experience to make exactly what they made. It is a movie made about slavery that used slave labor. It is a movie that offended both liberals and conservatives, those that believed in tolerance and those that were racist, those that were black and people who were white. This is a message movie that had its message taken away by American producers, leaving two hours of shock with none of the moral it so desperately needed.

If this movie upsets you, perhaps you needed to be upset. You should be less upset about a movie made nearly fifty years ago and more upset about our nation’s history of racism and intolerance. And you should definitely be upset about the lack of civil rights in our country today. I’m writing this after a day of nationwide protest, with police cars ablaze and crowds of protesters and the press teargassed.

If you choose, you can watch this on Tubi.

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