Exploitation cinema is all about pushing the envelope and that means there are key examples of the form that push past prurient interests into the truly transgressive. One of the ultimate examples is Goodbye Uncle Tom. Even if you are a seasoned exploitation film veteran, take this little essay as a warning – this artfully made but vicious film deals in the rough stuff and it’s likely to leave a mark on you.
The twisted minds behind this monument to misanthropy are Gualterio Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. For the uninitiated, this duo invented the shock documentary format – the ‘mondo movie’ – with Mondo Cane, which begat a trend that continues to this day with Faces Of Death and films of that ilk. They tried to make a serious documentary a few films later with Africa Addio, focusing on political upheaval in post-colonial Africa, only to be crucified in the media and attacked by various government officials. Not only were they accused of bad taste and racism, they were also charged with staging murders for the camera.
Stung by this debacle, they set out to make a documentary-style fictional epic that would be a cry against racism. The end result was Goodbye Uncle Tom, a film that takes the viewer back to slavery-era America, with the filmmakers posing as themselves (off-camera) as they go back in time to interview people about their thoughts and feelings on slavery. Taking an epic tone, it covers everything from the journey on the slave ships to the processing & breeding farms to life on the plantations. The viewer is spared none of the grisly details during this tortuous journey.
Sounds thought-provoking, right? Well, yes, but not in a way designed to make you feel comfortable or superior. Jacopetti and Prosperi were intelligent and talented craftsmen but also incredibly mean-spirited misanthropes who took great glee in collecting mankind’s worst excesses and shoving them in a viewer’s face. Among the sights lingered upon in Goodbye Uncle Tom: brutal rapes of slaves (both by whites and by crazed bucks in breeding farms), demeaning ‘medical’ exams, slave auctions and laughing, leering massas holding forth with stomach-churning racist theories about slaves.
And if this wasn’t enough to make the mind reel and the stomach churn, Goodbye Uncle Tom truly tops itself at finale time. Suddenly jumping to 1971-era Miami, it presents a twisted revenge fantasy where an Afro-ed black priest reads The Confessions Of Nat Turner on a beach, his thoughts narrating the passages aloud while he mentally pictures all the whities around him being slaughtered in gruesome detail by militant Black Panther-types. It’s stunningly tacky and wipes out any sort of positive anti-racist message by catering to the worst fears of racist whites about militant blacks.
And yet, Goodbye Uncle Tom can’t fully be rejected as trash. For one thing, it’s just too well made. The photography is stunning, making use of a poetic visual style to ironically comment on what it displays. A great example of this approach is a slo-mo scene of a little white girl and a little black boy running through a field: the image seems idyllic until we get close enough to see that the little girl has the boy on a chain, like a pet.
The film also boasts lavish production values, complete with convincing period costumes and atmospheric location shooting done in Haiti and the American South. Finally, Riz Ortolani’s lyrical, often stirring musical score adds an ironic sting to all the carnage (the instrumental version of the film’s main title theme was later used to haunting effect in Drive). The sumptuous style utilized by Jacopetti and Prosperi heightens the effect of the upsetting material they explore, hitting the viewer like an iron fist in a velvet glove.
The directing duo is also capable of making the occasional salient point: a good example arrives when they reveal that the costs of owning and maintaining slaves was often greater than the profits for the short-sighted slave owners. However, moments like this get buried amidst all the gratuitous shock value. Smart as they are, Jacopetti and Prosperi can’t help but play to the darker side of the viewer’s curiousity and then push it beyond the pale.
They also forget the most important part of anti-slavery message: in other words, communicating what such a process does to our humanity. Jacopetti and Prosperi skip the element of humanity altogether. In fact, everyone is portrayed in a one-dimensional style: the whites are either raving sociopaths, clueless boobs or both while the slaves are presented as dull-witted, helpless and often co-dependent victims.
The end result is a powerful, beautifully crafted shock-o-rama that leaves the audience feeling hollowed-out and hopeless. Simultaneously stunning and nauseating, Goodbye Uncle Tom leaves one thinking Jacopetti and Prosperi might have become great filmmakers had they gotten over their insatiable appetite to beat the audience into submission with misanthropic shocks.