Cult Cinema: Goodbye Uncle Tom

Andrew reviews one of the most offensive movies in the history of cinema. 

After the enormous controversy generated by Africa Addio (known in the US as Africa: Blood and Guts), the ‘Godfathers of Mondo’ or Italian shockumentarians Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi set out to make a Mondo mockumentary that would make the furor surrounding the aforementioned film seem mild by comparison.  While Africa Addio drew worldwide ire including public denunciation from the United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg for it’s very real onscreen human deaths and unrelenting animal cruelty and accusations of racism and general insensitivity, Addio Zio Tom (renamed Goodbye Uncle Tom for domestic release) somehow managed to offend on a greater level despite being almost entirely staged.  Partially the ultimate Mondo movie and the zenith of exploitation filmmaking, Goodbye Uncle Tom is 12 Years a Slave done Mondo Cane style with their usual blend of voiceover narration, operatic soundtrack by Cannibal Holocaust composer Riz Ortolani and unrelenting gawking at pure shock and awe. 

"God damnit!!! Put some pants on already!!!"

 Subverting their own sensationalist personas, Prosperi and Jacopetti quite literally travel back in time with their familiar helicopter to nineteenth century antebellum America (actually shot in Haiti) to film slavery in action.  Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive will recognize the theme song Oh My Love sung by Katelyn Ranieri immediately as the helicopter passes over plantations and slave traders.  As the film progresses, much like Cannibal Holocaust, Ortolani will rework this theme in a myriad of ways, all to highly subversive and disturbing effect.  Shot in widescreen, we enter the household of a slave owner and bear witness to virtually every exploitation of the human body the historical texts or, more to the point, Prosperi and Jacopetti can conjure up in front of the camera.  If you thought the television show Roots or films like Amistad and 12 Years a Slave were unpleasant to ponder let alone sit through, you really haven’t seen the mouth of Hell that is Goodbye Uncle Tom and for that matter might be all the better off for it.  The filmmakers have always gloated over the gory details and in the case of Goodbye Uncle Tom, the word itself is a childishly inadequate description of just how much these two wallow in outrageously taboo imagery. 

Part of what makes Goodbye Uncle Tom so shocking is its lack of a moral compass.  Where other treatments of the subject provided a diametrically opposed attitude towards the maltreatment of Africans, Prosperi and Jacopetti try to further displace the viewer into the historical timeframe by siding up with the captors, making us eerily complicit in the wrongdoing on display.  In order to better understand the mindset of that time, as it were, Goodbye Uncle Tom places you in the shoes of those cracking the whips.  For a while, Goodbye Uncle Tom succeeds in completely offending you as much as humanly possible but then Prosperi and Jacopetti ratchet the subversion even further by staging revenge murders committed by ex-slaves against their former owners as modern day Black Panther raids, including but not limited to an unintentionally hilarious moment where an infant is smashed to death against a wall.  American distributors were so incensed by these scenes that much of the footage was excised from the domestic version. 

"I'm Eddie Murphy. Touch my ball."

Understandably, Goodbye Uncle Tom was burned at the stake by the critics with Roger Ebert accurately pointing out the notion of the film being used for educational purposes was a smokescreen for their real aims which were to stage a geek show.  Considered both racist and a call to racial violence, Goodbye Uncle Tom quietly slinked out of theaters before finding a second life among fans of exploitation cinema.  While I’m not so sure just how “racist” the film actually is at heart, I’m absolutely certain of it being a chunk of violence porn with no clue where and when to stop.  As another entry in the unending debate about the validity of the Mondo exploitation subgenre, Goodbye Uncle Tom is something of an outlier for the shockumentary duo for being entirely reenacted, fantastical and even operatic at times.  Arguably their one and only fiction film based on a historical subject, Goodbye Uncle Tom is a punishing eyesore made all the more horrifying by the exploitative sensibility behind it.  While I can’t necessarily in good conscience recommend this film, it was undeniably extremely effective in how it systematically proceeded to rape my eyes and senses.  If nothing else, you’ll never be able to hear that song in Drive the same way again.  You’ve been warned to enter at your own risk.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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