You may think you've seen some shocking and outrageous movies before, but you haven't seen anything until you've seen Goodbye, Uncle Tom. A pseudo-documentary about the horrors of slavery in pre-Civil War America, the movie has something to anger absolutely everyone. Out of print for years, the movie is finally back in print as part of the Mondo Cane box set. Mondo Cane is an Italian movie known for its sensationalistic and titillating approach to documentary filmmaking, but it's got nothing on this film.
The movie is filmed as if modern filmmakers took a trip the antebellum south and recorded what they saw there, with an emphasis on the most inhuman stuff they could find. So, we get to see rape, torture, children being sold as sex toys, beatings, and just about everything else you can think of. Even when there are not massive amounts of violence on the screen, it's still pretty disturbing. There's a shot of a little white girl and a little black boy running through a field together; after a little while you realize the girl has the boy on a leash. And about every five minutes, there's someone prattling on about the inferiority of blacks people. Much of the dialog comes from the actual letters and documents of time, so at least there's some devotion to historical accuracy. I'm not sure how accurate everything else is, but even if only 10 percent of it is true, it would still be absolutely horrible.
When not creating re-enactments of slavery, the filmmakers shot some actual documentary footage about race relations between blacks and whites in America in the early 70s. There's a lot of angry rhetoric from people like Eldridge Cleaver and some staged footage of some Black Panthers slicing up a white couple and beating an infant's head against a wall. There's also a scene in which a black guy tries to read The Diary of Nat Turner on the beach and fantasies about killing some nearby white people. By the end of the movie, you're not really sure whether you've watched a collection of David Duke's favorite moments in American history or a Five Percent Nation recruitment tape.
The movie has been called one of the most racist films ever made, which is ironic since the filmmakers made it to deflect accusations of racism over of their earlier documentary Goodbye, Africa. I think the problem people have with it is that it brings an exploitation flick sensibility to the study of a very painful part of Americas past. There are a lot of lascivious nude shots, especially in the part where the filmmakers visit a whorehouse staffed by slaves. In fact, there's a part in which the cameraman has sex with a 13-year-old slave girl, which is icky no matter how you slice it. It's a bit like compiling a movie of scenes of naked female prisoners in concentration camps and calling it The Original Girls Gone Wild. There are slow-motion death scenes, and an S&M sequence that looks like it came out a late night movie on Cinemax. Even more problematic is the fact that many of the slaves are portrayed as barely being human. In the "Stud farm" sequence, a young slave girl is raped by a slave "stud" who growls and drools like a dog. The only black characters with major speaking roles are a pimp and a cruel "mammy" character. Amistad this is not.
In the modern-day scenes, the filmmakers seem torn over whether to suggest that we all get along or that all we all start beating each other to death with baseball bats. The filmmakers have said that were just trying to show what was going on and not trying to send a "message", but at times it seems like they're just hoping there's going to be a race war in America so they can film it all. There are no interviews, just footage of black power rallies and hippies and audio recordings of black radicals declaring their contempt for Martin Luther King, Jr. and white people in general. One man goes so far as to declare that all white women are ugly. This is one movie in which no one looks to the cookie.
In the end, Goodbye, Uncle Tom is not so much a racist movie as it is a completely tasteless movie. It's like watching a John Waters-directed version of Black Like Me - whatever lessons about racism there are to be learned, they'll be overshadowed by the scenes of transvestites getting hit in the face with colostomy bags. I have no problems with a discussion of race relations or the horrors of slavery, but bringing a Jerry Springer-type sensibility to it is a really bad idea. The movie stands as a testament to good intentions gone completely awry.
Having said that, I'm surprised that it's been such an obscure film for so many years. I'd say that Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are much dodgier productions, yet they can still easily be found in stores and are studied in film classes. Goodbye, Uncle Tom is one of the most incendiary pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen, and yet it's been rarely seen since its debut in the early 70s. The movie may be tacky and offensive, but it will provoke a lot more discussion than almost any other movie you've seen. Goodbye, Uncle Tom is part of the new Mondo Cane box set offered by Blue Underground, and it is definitely worth your time to watch it. I don't think it's possible for anyone to actually enjoy the movie, but I guarantee it will be an unforgettable experience.