When it comes to movies about racism, Goodbye Uncle Tom is the nastiest, most provocative and all-around angering one I’ve ever come across. It’s unrelenting in its portrayal of the inhumanity that goes on during America’s most troubling chapter. The DVD cover’s tagline says, “Makes Roots look like The Jeffersons!” I initially pegged that as a cheeky sell line. It turns out that it was being completely truthful. Goodbye Uncle Tom is like Roots, if Roots was directed by the Italian guys who did Mondo Cane.
The premise itself is nutty. Unlike most Mondo films, which are actual documentaries, Goodbye Uncle Tom is strictly reenactments (for obvious reasons), but still presents itself as a documentary. The assumption is that the filmmakers travel from present day Italy to 18th century Southern states and brought a camera along (references to a time machine is made vague), interviewing white slavers and documenting what Africans went through as they’re brought in by the boatload. We see how disgusting the degradation as it truly was: breeding farms, genital cropping, underage rape—stuff that are usually left out of the white-washed (pardon the term) portrayals of slavery in films, which are often “just” whippings and forced labor. Goodbye Uncle Tom doesn’t shy from the fact that the slaves were treated as animals.
Hint from my personal mistake: don’t eat lunch while the slave boat scene is playing, where they show rows of slaves on their way to America, chained (because apparently if you don’t, Africans won’t be able to stop masturbating all day) and their anus plugged with sugarcane to stop their diarrhea from spilling out. Put the burger down when they show what slavers do to force the slaves to eat (it involves a chisel, a hammer and a wooden tube).
There’s no Kunta Kinte. There is no protagonist to root for. In fact, there’s nothing empowering about this movie at all. It’s a series of firsthand vignettes, portraying antebellum America as a hotbed of immorality, all done under the assumption that “God is white!” as one devout Christian slaver declares. It’s exploitation, sure, but it does challenge audiences to not look away from a truth most people would rather sweep under a rug.
One of the ethical questions that came to my mind was, “Where the fuck did they get dozens of black actors willing to be subjected to this?” There’s no two ways about it. When we see a horde of naked slaves of both sexes rush out of their cages and push each other to eat disgusting slop from a stable trough with their dirty hands, those were real people doing that. There was an actual baby rolling around in that slop. Just trying to imagine the film set alone boggles the mind. Where did they get black men to agree to have their genitals fondled by old white men on camera while being insulted to their faces? It’s either ignorance or a staggering commitment to the craft. Then I found out the unpleasant answer: the film was made in Haiti using Haitian peasants who didn’t really know better or cared—under the blessing and instruction of Papa Doc.
What makes it even more disturbing—oddly enough—is how deftly it’s filmed, with some gorgeous shots, powerful images and clever editing, without ever letting the handsome presentation take away the impact of its filth.
In its attempt to present a point of view, the film goes back to the present day at the end to talk about the rise of the Black Panther movement and comparing a black gang murdering an innocent white family to Nat Turner’s uprising. Even in its exceedingly silly fashion, it asks a provocative question: what is the difference between Nat Turner’s revolt and the violent actions of the black youth who feel imprisoned by White America? A lot of people would argue that the answer is obvious, but after Goodbye Uncle Tom’s barrage of sickening images, what the juxtaposition reveals is the sad truth that the anger and hurt will never go away, no matter how progressive a society becomes. If the time travel of the film is supposed to represent anything, it is in how history affects the present day—and in fact, the idea is that the European filmmakers travel back in time because they don’t understand why America in the early 1970’s (and arguably today, as well) had such strong racial tension.
Goodbye Uncle Tom is available to rent from Netflix and—remarkably—Blockbuster. You can also buy it, of course, either by itself or bundled with other “shockumentaries,” although personally I must admit… I really, really, really can’t believe I own this movie. So purchase with caution, and have a dustpan ready to sweep up pieces of your dignity just in case.
Watch Out! is a feature on JustPressPlay where Arya Ponto showcases lesser-known, lesser-appreciated and often bizarre small films that are cool and deserve to get some attention. Venture here to see all previous entries.