Goodbye Uncle Tom | Varied Celluloid

Goodbye Uncle Tom

Posted by Josh Samford On August - 15 - 2008
The Plot: Goodbye Uncle Tom tells the story of the injustice of slavery from the youth of America through to modern times. Following slaves from Africa, and the horrifying boat rides that included using corks covered in material to stop the diarrhea of many future slaves – and the breaking of their front teeth to funnel water in for those who refused to drink. We watch from this brutal event to the next, as they arrive on shore and are thrown in mass pools with soap and disinfectant then are sold off to the highest bidder. We see the unbearable treatment of many slaves, including the rape of the females and the forced breeding in captivity. All of this through the eyes of a faux-documentary lens that seems all too real.




The Review: I’ve put off checking out Goodbye Uncle Tom for a while now. I can’t say precisely why, I’ve never read all too much about it. What I have read about it seemed to essentially cover some rather exploitative happenings during slavery period of the United States. Something about the idea worried me however, that someone halfway across the world would take up a camera, put a pen to paper and going through all of this elaborate work all in order to make an exploitative film about one of our greatest crimes in American history… well, what can the intention possibly be? Will it simply be a focus on the exploitation and a political tool for others to build their own self-esteem upon? The concept to most Americans, to go out and make such a film about another land, would be pretty bizarre. To go and make a movie about a dark element of European history that in no way directly related to the US, likely wouldn’t be made, since truthfully most Americans could care less what the Italians were up to a millennium ago. Stories of ancient Europe such as that of the Marquis De Sade, Braveheart and such are usually glazed over and certainly not made with the intention of pointing out wrongs of the government but more about making heroes of common people (or in the case of De Sade, making a hero of love out of a psychopath). The Germans unfortunately get hammered with World War II films; but those are usually stories focused on an American perspective. I worried before the film that this would turn out to be a two hour long lecture about the evils of America; past but also present. When I say all of this I don’t mean to gloss over slavery myself or put it off as anything more gentle than what is portrayed in this film. It is the most heinous of things any human being can do to one another, for anyone to have that much power over anyone is the most frightening thing I can imagine. What was bugging me about the film is why not cover many of the European countries just as guilty? If the target just so happens to be the most popular whipping boy – it makes me wonder if the intention is less about exposing the horrors of a terrible time and more political leverage for modern day events. My question was why this topic – from these filmmakers. Heaven knows that Rome and Italy have an extremely long and even more sordid past with the slave trade. From the ancient days to the Renaissance and beyond. They weren’t black slaves in those days, but Muslims or Jews. Equally as bizarre is to find out later that this film was shot in Haiti during the rule of Francois Duvalier, known psychotic dictator. He didn’t kill quite as many as someone like Idi Amin, but his crimes were nefarious and to think these people in this film portraying those being oppressed and brutalized were in fact quite oppressed and brutalized themselves – it makes one wonder where the feature film about these people are. The nail in the coffin on this subject is in the final credits where it has: “We thank his excellency the President of the Republic of Haiti Dr. Francois Duvalier for the hospitality and assistance offered to the troupe while filming in Haiti.” It seems painful that a film pointing out man’s inhumanity towards his brother, was ironically shot and helped by a dictatorship committing their own atrocities. However, I know that’s a lot of politics at play and I try not to get into that too much with my reviews – but Goodbye Uncle Tom is a film that asks it of you. These are also simply worries that I had BEFORE seeing the film, and not those based on my actual experience with the film itself.

Goodbye Uncle Tom may be the most brutally honest film depicting slavery as it once was. Showing the guts and terror of every worst possible situation the mind could fathom. There is no real direct narrative of the film told through characters and the things they go through. It is told in much the same documentary format that the filmmakers had made famous with their “mondo” series of films, only this one is obviously told through the use of actors and conventional film storytelling. However the one narrative link we have is that the film is told by someone who lays behind the camera. He asks the characters questions, interacts with the on-screen environment and serves as our guide through this horrid tale of debauchery and civilized society hiding a terrible sin right under their own feet. The film takes us on this bizarre journey as if through the eyes of these visitors who apparently have the modern sensibilities of we the viewer… I would suppose so, what with having a time machine to travel back to the early 1800s/late 1700s with a camera and such. The film feels like a modern and completely bizarre theatrical play, stretched out and put on display in as harrowing of detail as could possibly be with all the cinematic tools. At the two hour length however, one simply becomes so weary with all of the negativity and racism within the film. It begins to disturb the mind after a short amount of time. Near the halfway point it is already too much for sanity’s sake – but that’s essentially the point. To drive you crazy and burden you down with all of these horrors. The massive scope of the film and sheer technical brilliance of the film is just about the only thing that keeps it from seeming less like pure exploitative smut throughout, since it really is an absolutely stunning film full of such poetic and dancing camerawork that few films could hope to duplicate. There truly is some fantastic cinematography here, and even when looking at these screenshots and reading my words – you’ll more than likeely still be impressed with the visual proficiency of the film. The film never really takes place in any kind of geographical locations that look anything remotely like Louisiana however, as the closest any of us get to the sandy landscapes present in the film are when we visit the beach – and even then you’re surrounded by trees and folage.

There are moments in Goodbye Uncle Tom where the moral boundaries are crossed so far that the entire point of the film often seems distant or non-existant. Our time traveling man behind the camera who I at first assumed would be the representation of us the viewer, blows that away when he sleeps with the 13 year old slave girl… no, I’m not kidding. This literally happens, and don’t worry that’s not a spoiler since it takes place in only one of about a thousand different race related scenarios they take us on and it’s around the halfway point that it happens. Then there’s the point where our tour guides stop to speak to a slave who is actually happy with his situation and he explains he doesn’t care to be free, since all he sees from supposedly free slaves are those who have to work and break their back all day just to make enough to get by and such – which I started to wonder if maybe this would be the “point” of the film; but then our tour guide starts yelling and berating this slave and even calling him a disgrace to his race. Utterly bizarre, but that essentially describes everything in the film. The class structures are attacked within the film, with a couple of poor characters talking about how many slaves a rich plantation owner has and how neither he nor anyone he knew has a slave for themselves; and how the slaves have all but put them out of work. The subtext of the film is thick, but it often gets cluttered – but I think the ultimate goal of the film is simply to demonstrate all of these horrible things for the viewers to see. Much like with the previously mentioned Mondo series, the main goal is simply to get these things onscreen – but I will commend the filmmakers for coming up with an intriguing and highly original format in which to do it.

The musical accompaniment for the film by Riz Ortolani is certainly a strange mix, but it does work effectively well. It’s the usual upbeat and jivey soundtrack you would expect from the man responsible for the music in Cannibal Holocaust, and it may even be better. I am told the Oscar/Emmy nominated music for Mondo Cane, also from Riz Ortolani, featured the same upbeat musical theme; and although I absolutely love the music – it is a strange mix. To have such lively music with such downtrodden and horrible visuals. Such sweet and melodic music accompanying the memorable breeding farm segment is a good example, hearing this enchanting tune being played out while the visual side of things show us a completely disgusting truth of history where slaves were bread for best results. Like dogs or horses. The use of terms like “stallions” and women being in “heat” seem just too unbelievable to be true; but these were obviously strange and scary times. I also wonder just how much the filmmakers know about genetics with such segments, as they feature young black boys running around with obviously dyed blonde hair. I know quite a few friends with interracial parents; but never once have I seen such Kevin Randleman-esque (that’s an MMA reference most won’t get) results. I suppose modern genes just aren’t as strong as those old timey boys. Regardless, the conclusion to the film goes into a strange new direction in the much talked about Nat Turner sequence. For those who haven’t read about it, it is essentially a young black Priest reading The Confessions of Nat Turner, the story of a slave who rebelled and killed many whites alongside other slaves. The young man goes from just reading, to imagining the deaths in current day America, committed not by slaves but young black men with afros. The point of the sequence is lost on me, since this young man apparently wants to kill all the white people around him and fantasizes about it because they simply annoy him. The character is disillusioned with the progress America has made, but the violence hardly seems understandable. However, I can understand where the sequence is derived from.

I know this has went on possibly too long already and most quit reading after the first paragraph – but I will say that although it might seem like I am overly critical: I did like Goodbye Uncle Tom and respect its power. I would recommend it to those interested in the race issue and anyone who wants to see absolutely the most shocking slavery oriented film ever made. Shocking to our minds at least. Roots might be the more respectable and tasteful production based around the subject, but Goodbye Uncle Tom will definitely reach into your chest and rip your heart out by its intense and harrowing accounts of these horrible, horrible things. I give it a four out of five, because cinema is power and when a film takes that power and bends it to its own will – then it has done its job. As doubtful as some things, and as questioning I am about much of it and the limited respect I find for certain aspects of it morally – I am terribly glad to have seen it and would actually love to see it on the big screen.

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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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