Videogum friend Rich Juzwiak, who writes the tremendous website FourFour and also blogs about Rock of Love: Tour Bus for VH1, likes some fucked up movies, and sometimes he makes me watch one. This week, we talk about Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s film Goodbye Uncle Tom, which Wikipedia describes this way:
Addio Zio Tom is a pseudo documentary where the filmmakers go back in time and visit antebellum America, using period documents to examine, in graphic detail, the racist ideology and degrading conditions faced by Africans under slavery. Because of the use of published documents and materials from the public record, with actors playing the role of the historical figures, the film labels itself a documentary, and portrays slave life as a non-stop orgy of violence, rape and torture committed by Whites against their Black slaves.
We thought that it was particularly appropriate to deal with this complicated and bizarre movie this week, what with Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of Barack Obama. In retrospect that might make it the most inappropriate. You will decide that for yourself! If you can even make it through the whole discussion. It is, in a word, long.
Gabe, this film is the reason I wanted to start examining movies with you in the first place: I know that you’re a reasonable guy and I so need you as my moral center here. When I first watched Goodbye Uncle Tom, I was obsessed. I was in love with its audacity, its aesthetic beauty, its singularity (there never was and never will be again a self-conscious, hypothetical, dysentery-and-all documentary of every facet of U.S. slavery — I can barely even believe this film exists and I’ve watched it repeatedly!). Just as you can’t take your eyes off this thing as it’s unspooling, I couldn’t take my mind off it long after it headed back to Netflix headquarters.
The obvious, unshakable question is: is this film racist? Racism, as infuriating as all its modern permutations can be, is easily dismissed in my head. It’s just too stupid to merit the effort it takes to get bent out of shape over it. I’m more likely to be pissed about the rudeness or entitlement it takes to say something hateful than I am the actual hateful sentiment. So I feel that if Goodbye Uncle Tom were merely racist, merely exploitative revelry over the good old antebellum days, it wouldn’t warrant any serious consideration, and I can’t stop considering it.
At the very least, Goodbye Uncle Tom is more than racism committed to film. It is indeed exploitation, grindhousey and gory, but its conscience is explained in its final segment, when a modern incarnate of Nat Turner seethes with rage while watching white people frolic on the beach. He’s still affected by the injustices of the past, and after watching them for two hours, can you blame him? Pauline Kael called Prosperi and Jacopetti “irresponsible” and in her scathing review famously deemed Goodbye Uncle Tom “the most specific and rabid incitement of the race war.” But shit, what’s wrong with incitement? I think that we should be fucking mad about slavery and reminded of atrocity! We should be faced with what we’re capable of as a species! We should never forget that we are so fucked up because we can be.
And let it be stated that Goodbye Uncle Tom is fucked up because Jacopetti and Prosperi could be. To illustrate dehumanization so vividly — the caging, the force-feeding, the trough-dining, the inverted hanging, the nonchalant sexual harassment of women and sometimes children — they had to dehumanize. I read that the Haitian dictator essentially gave the directors free reign of his people. I wonder if the hundreds of extras that populate Tom were even paid. I wonder who the real slaveholders are.
See, it’s not like Goodbye Uncle Tom is an unselfish work of cinematic activism. Jacopetti and Prosperi have clearly stated what their intentions were. After their expose of the savagery of Africa, Addio Africa, was, in fact, savaged as racist, they set out to “make a new film that would be clearly anti-racist” (per The Godfathers of Mondo documentary). Goodbye Uncle Tom was made, at least in part, to clear their name — this is the cinematic equivalent of, “I’m not racist, I have black friends.”
“We’re not racist, we direct black movies.”
It’s all very suspect and, at least to me, endlessly fascinating.
Well, having only seen the movie the once, I have nothing but my initial reactions to go off of, for better or for worse. Although, that said, I can tell you that I am impressed that you’ve sat through that movie multiple times. One thing about racism that people don’t talk about his how BORING it is. I don’t mean that in a dismissive or reductive way. I understand that racism does actual damage to real people all the time, and in that sense it is horrible (understatement) and unignorable. But in the sense that this movie is racist, it’s boring when people are just so bull-headedly wrong about EVERYTHING. It’s not only insulting in the way that racism is a moral affront to everyone, but it’s insulting in the way that WE ALL HAVE TO DO THE WORK OF BEING CURIOUS AND ENGAGED WITH THE WORLD AND TRYING TO SOLVE ITS QUESTIONS. If that makes any sense. This film is kind of beautiful cinematographically, but also has the plodding pace of a lot of ’70s cinema, where you just wish everyone would put the bong down for long enough to get to the point. The point being that black people … should … I don’t know, actually.
Of course, the Goodbye Uncle Tom filmmakers’ insistence that this movie is their anti-racist project is part of its charm (in the way that anthropology or science museums filled with dead fetuses in jars are charming). The toothless crime of someone being crazy racist but thinking that what they’re saying is just the opposite is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s that type of benign, “harmless” racism that actually shows how deep the roots of racism go. And this movie is, at least at this point in history, ultimately harmless. It’s grotesque and repulsive, but most of it is just so ridiculous and wrong. The scene in which the short carnival barker slave trader goes from one room to the next, showing off slaves painted gold and silver and whatnot is a real mindfuck and we should probably both go to race jail just for watching it, but I am not sure that anyone has ever held that to be their deep-rooted intolerant belief about the history of African Americans because what?
But your reference to Pauline Kael’s review is interesting, because it puts this movie in the context of the time it was made. One of the reasons that this movie struck me as such an unpleasant but ultimately benign curiosity is because the idea of a “race war” just seems like such a relic of the (reminder: not so distant) past. And that in turn puts our current “culture war” in perspective. Because for as “heated” as things sometimes seem, and for as much as the world and the United States in particular seems divided along important fault lines regarding crucial questions of civil liberties and human rights, the idea of a movie creating any kind of serious stir or reaction is nearly impossible. Granted, I am not sure that I’ve ever SEEN a movie this inflammatory released in my lifetime. But in some senses, it makes the world seem a little more even-keeled than it might feel on a day-to-day basis. Stories about Reverend Fred Phelps excluded.
Or maybe there’s another, somewhat more distressing interpretation of the Pauline Kael review. Maybe it’s just that art no longer has the power to effect any change, for better or for worse.
I guess the first thing that I’d like to propose is for you to spell out exactly why you think this movie is racist. I don’t doubt your conviction, but since I’m more ambivalent on the topic, I think what you’re assuming goes without saying should be, in fact, said. And because I didn’t exactly spell my feelings out initially, here they are: while reveling in the exploitation of slavery on an epic level, I don’t see how you could possibly come away from this movie with anything but disdain for slavery. Slavery was disgusting, and the movie makes sure you understand that by being disgusting. It mocks those who attempted to explain it away, and the scenes in which God and the Bible are invoked as rationale reverberate through the present as the amoral moralists try to justify their subjugation of the homosexual minority. And while rumors of Prosperi’s and Jacopetti’s explicitly stated racism linger, there’s something to be said for the by-any-means necessary nature of ’70s cinema (particularly Italian cinema and specifically Mondo movies) informing Uncle Tom’s gratuitousness. There is something refreshing about showing something for what it is, and no context could be less appropriate for whitewashing than slavery.
And you know, that Kael review could also bespeak a belief that blacks were volatile and dangerous enough to start a race war in the first place, as much as it’s commenting on this film itself. That whole review, actually, was kind of gross to me — it’s a mutli-film examination-cum-takedown of blaxploitation cinema, in which she dismisses the ridiculous archetypes the movement presented without any attempt to understand why they existed and why these weirdo black superheroes might have been a smidge more relevant to subjugated blacks than some whitey film critic. I haven’t read much of her, which I know is a crime for anyone interested in criticism, but I can’t say that review made me want to read more.
Regarding examples of the film’s racism, for one thing, the black people in the movie are categorically depicted as monstrous, bestial, dangerous, hyper-sexualized animals. Although the movie deals relatively gruesomely with the “horrors,” it still feels like a pretty light condemnation of the slave-trade in general. I agree that you can’t come away from it with anything other than contempt and disgust for slavery, but in some ways I wonder if some of that contempt and disgust towards slavery isn’t just contempt and disgust for a tradition that gave anyone the ideas they needed to make a film like this. Like, for the educated viewer, a movie about the Holocaust told from the German point of view should still leave you with nothing but contempt and disgust for the Nazis, but it’s going to take a lot of slogging through genuine anti-Semitisim and Nazi-apologism to get there. The best thing about examples that don’t exist is YOU CAN’T PROVE ME WRONG.
I’d also argue that this movie has an overwhelmingly racist tone? And that it just feels yucky watching it? And that the yucky feeling does not come from having my sheltered eyes opened to so many truths, so then it has to be something else, and without being able to exactly identify it, or explain it in a way that would have made any of my college professors proud (starting with my distinctly non-academic use of the word “yucky”), I have to identify that yuckiness as coming from something that is basically racism even if it’s hard to figure out the what/why/how.
One thing that’s interesting about your last email, though, is your idea that I’ve “dismissed” the movie as racist. What a lot of people seem to struggle with is what it means for something to be racist, and especially what it means for something to be racist if you like it. Does that make you racist? The obvious answer to that is not necessarily. It’s a tricky subject, but I think at the end of the day, if we’re supposed to keep making progress on this issue, the main thing is to identify racism in the culture, regardless of how we feel about it. I think that people get really nervous about identifying racism because of what it might say about them, so they’ll defend something as not being racist and as the person who’s calling racism as being overly sensitive or PC, when really something can be racist whether you like it or not (and by like I mean “enjoy”). Does this make sense? Like, if you like something that is racist, that doesn’t make it not racist, so just identify what is racist about it and spend some time thinking about why you like it, and move on. You don’t even have to change your opinion about that thing, and you certainly don’t have to dismiss it, but that doesn’t change what it carries inside it. Which is racism. It carries racism inside of it.
I definitely was not out to dismiss you by calling you dismissive, first of all. It’s just that at the center of my interest in this movie is the racism question, which I think you sort of just took for granted. It’s fine if your reaction was that the film was so blatantly racist that discussing color as it pertains to Uncle Tom would be like discussing color as it pertains to the sky: duh-worthy. I’m not trying to accuse you of being overly PC — my question ultimately gives you the opportunity to prove that you aren’t.
I agree with you about the portrayal of the slaves, to a point, although most of their negative qualities could be attributed to their owners. The owners are the ones who demonized (and, in the case of the “studs,” controlled) their sexuality. The owners are the ones who kept the slaves ignorant. The owners are the ones who slashed the slaves’ humanity into fractions. These are historical facts. The amount of editorializing the portrayal of the slaves that comes directly from Prosperi and Jacpoetti is fuzzy. Perhaps this is by design and the whole affair is one big slimy sleight of hand.
And really, the owners look no better. A lot of them are just as “bestial” as the slaves (that German woman with the dental issues who gags over her foreign tongue about a slave’s castration that’s taking place, for example). It may not be equal opportunity misanthropy, but it’s something close to that.
Also, I would argue that regardless of what’s causing it, “Yuck” is the morally sound response to an explicit depiction of slavery. I can attest to being grossed out by the exposed truths, but even if it’s something different for you, we’ve arrived at much the same spot. I guess that’s the point and that’s what makes this exploitation. And maybe that’s one argument for the film’s racism that I can get behind: to use slavery as a tool of cinematic arousal is ultimately disrespectful. No matter what you may learn along the way, Goodbye Uncle Tom’s primary target is your gut. It pummels you in the exact manner that gross-out movies do. The slave owners are just zombies who haven’t died yet or slashers on the right side of the law (and God’s providence, so they think). The slaves are just bodies to count. Because, really, what’s the point, anyway? In the most constructive scenario, Goodbye Uncle Tom exists only to teach us what we already know. If we think slavery’s disgusting, we leave justified. If we take pleasure in the suffering of the black race, we leave satisfied.
I have a high threshold for the disrespect of life in cinema, but if I had to sit down and draw lines of taboo, places not to go, slavery would be included. And the fact that Goodbye Uncle Tom doesn’t just cross but rapes that line is what makes it amazing. Its audacity is spectacular. My relationship to this film is an endless cycle of repulsion and enthrallment. I suppose this is why I can’t move on, as you suggest.
You make a really good point about the equal opportunity misanthropy and the fact that the white people in the movie are never let off the hook. But it reminds me of a pretty common trend these days for people to refer to their work (book, movie, TV, stand up comedy) as being an “equal opportunity offender.” We’re all so hyper-aware of the dangers and complexities of race these days that we have to make sure that people understand that we’re ready and willing to make fun of everyone. And I have no problem with that. But that doesn’t make it not offensive in each instance. Like, your racist black joke can sit next to your self-hating jokes about the Cracker Barrel but that doesn’t make the racist black joke not racist. Not that this movie has a lot of jokes in it.
I also would argue that this is a pretty heavily editorialized depiction of slavery. It certainly seems to capture the grotesquerie of the whole thing in a way that a movie that was trying to be less shocking might not, and let’s not get confused: slavery is obviously grotesque and shocking in a way that this film couldn’t even begin to match. I’m not asking for some sanitized version of the story to appease my genteel sensibilities. But the movie begins with the filmmakers arriving on a Southern plantation in a HELICOPTER. Right from the beginning we’re dealing with their personalized and, in my mind, highly suspect interpretation of events. The fact that they claim it is a documentary only further complicates things because of how, you know, it’s not.
In the end, though, what makes this movie so compelling (if that’s even the right word, because it’s not like you’d call a sexual assault or a vivid depiction of torture “compelling”) is the fact that, without getting too Late Night College Idea Jam, Dorm Edition, we are all Goodbye Uncle Tom. That is to say that this movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the product of the world we live in, and its meaning is dependent on our interpretation. And with a movie like that, that is kind of an intense idea, because that says a lot about the world we live in, that this exists, that we made that happen.
I am curious, even though I know we’re trying to wrap this up (because JESUS), why you would draw the line at slavery as a film taboo? Why is it off-limits our out-of-bounds?
That point about the documentary claim at the end of the movie has been going through my head all day (would you believe it if I told you I watched this again yesterday?). It’s key, I think, to the skewed vision Prosperi and Jacopetti have of their “clearly anti-racist” work.
And as for slavery as a taboo, well…I mean, I guess what I ultimately object to isn’t so much the idea of portraying it, but exploiting it. I’m OK with educating people (as best you can) with movies. I’m OK with even inciting rage if you’re making your best effort to tell the truth while doing so. But to use something so integral to the reasons why things are so fucked up today as a fetish object or even gross-out gag is so shockingly tasteless. We’re talking fine lines here since all cinema is essentially exploitation, but I’d feel the same way about anything that is inherently and under every circumstance unfunny: the Holocaust, child abuse, animal cruelty, gay-bashing, whatever (murder’s not on the list, but a fascination with death is only human). Does that keep me from watching? Hell no, but despite hating an institution that I already hated a fraction more, the emotions mostly turn off and I watch the filmmaking and not the film. I watch what the directors do to provoke, and that is sometimes the greatest horror show of all.
And yes, I do think that “compelling” is exactly the word for this movie. If you could stand it, I’d suggest watching it again (and again and again) with different people and trying NOT to discuss it. Impossible. As much as society has progressed since its release, this nasty depiction of slavery is still relevant. It’s still willing to, as you say, incite interpretation. This garbage that’s been sitting around for 38 years still stinks. A hardly shocking result for a purposely shocking film.
Yeah, I think we did it. We solved racism, right?
And all it took was a few months and some email. Yet another reason why the Internet is not the worst!