Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971): Exploitation Nation

In compiled lists of depraved or controversial films, the typical entries include The Human Centipede, A Serbian Film, and Salo. These films are usually on these lists because the critic finds disgust with the subject of the film. As you know by now, I would challenge this because although the critic may not like the subject matter, these films have a story to tell. And in most cases, it’s a well-told story; most viewers have values and thresholds that are in conflict with watching these stories.

There does exist such a film with disturbing content, which reaches the depths of depraved, unnecessary, exploitative, and terrible. The film, including the use of the actors,  is more harmful that it exists. This film has vastly penetrated my threshhold for viewing; it is a film that not only I wish I could unsee, I wish I could have ensured that it never got made. The film I speak of is a the 1971 Italian film, Goodbye Uncle Tom.

The film is part of an Italian-genre called “Mondo Cane,” which are similar in that the filmmakers employ an off-camera gonzo-style interviewing of the characters, alternately with natural observation of the subject. The intent, as we are lead to believe,  is to expose the audience to the struggles and horror of slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War.

The film bears several similarities to the also grossly-exploitative Cannibal Holocaust in many ways: the faux-documentary style, the creepy, inappropriate music (it’s the same composer) and the holier-than thou, contradictory shaming of people watching their film. Both are not worthy of the space in cinema history that they take up. Goodbye Uncle Tom, in fact, has made a permanent, catastrophic scourge in film history.

The “concern” for those who experiences slavery, and this pressing need to have the story told, is disingenuous, because it seems the fillmmakers were more concerned about recreating the awful conditions and situations for some devious pleasure and sadistic treatment of the actors. Truly, a film depicting the gross exploitation of thousands of black slaves should not take such joy in putting the black actors through such exploitation. Much, if not all, of the scenes featuring hundreds of black actors were filmed in Haiti, utlizing the local population, who likely did not quite understand the role they were playing in this film. Sure, they were compensated (I hope), but I can’t imagine the compensation was equal to what they were asked to do.

What is it that the actors were portrayed engaging in? Well, to start, they were tied up on the slave ship and force fed slop. Many of the women were violently raped by white men. Many times.. Slaves were made to fight to eat from troughs of slop. They were given forceful enemas. Women’s infants were pulled from their arms, handled roughly and examined invasively. Young white girls lead black child slaves around with chain leashes. Plantations show the “mammy” figure in a misguided, comedic lens. They were forced to run from an owner shooting a gun. Women and children’s naked bodies were fondled and examined by potential slave buyers. A pedophile paints the bodies of child slaves. An “inbred,” mentally ill slave was used on a “stud farm” to rape and impregnate other slaves. Young slavegirls were portrayed as constantly aroused and begging to be devirginized by the men. And much more that I’ve probably blocked from my memory. It’s not even filmed well. There’s no reason to see these scenes, even from curiosity.

Even if a film were to depict these things because they happened, there’s a skill to filming these. A skill that these filmmaker missed. During rape scenes, the camera focused on the women’s breasts. During the enema scene, the camera focused on the slave’s pleasurable facial expressions from the act. I can’t imagine the levels of either depravitiy or absolute self-denial these filmmakers had while filming. There is not a single scene or single frame of this film where the technique or art of filmmaking is worth noting.

Who is this film for? Europeans to “learn” about the horrors of slavery in the US? Slavery is not common to the US, in fact, far from it, and the Europeans have had a fair share of slavery in their history. Is it for Americans to feel shame for their part in slavery? I this for fetishists who are so immersed in racism and hate who will get enjoyment from seeing hundreds of black people exploited for this film? I’m sad to say that is what it appears to be.

My hatred for this film does not equate with a denial of the horrible atrocities that the slaves endured. They did, indeed endure everything depicted in this film and more.  Absolutely. But there are myriad examples in literature and film that have portrayed these atrocities with a sense of dignity, and without the mass exploitation of supposed actors forced to endure horrific reenactments. This film has taught us nothing. The smug questioning by the off-screen interviewers is not accusing, it’s goading the slave owner/abuser to show them what they do.

Don’t watch Goodbye Uncle Tom out of curiosity. Don’t watch it with a film critique lens to decipher the meaning of it all. Watching this film, for no matter the intent, makes the viewer a part of the problem. Goodbye Uncle Tom is the only film I wish I could unsee.


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