Wednesday, August 26, 2009


One more post and I should have this strange film out of my system, to the likely relief of readers everywhere. The big question about Jacopetti & Prosperi's American epic, of course, is whether the film designed to prove that they weren't racists was, in fact, racist. For many viewers, its salacious gaze at the collective humiliation of a race can't help but be racist; it fails all conventional sensitivity tests, after all, and the objects of the filmmakers' solicitous concern can be excused for feeling that the film rather rubs their noses in it. Nevertheless, J&P say that they wanted to make a different impression, though they also admit failing at it. Taking them at their word, can we figure out what they thought they were saying?

Depravity: A slave is about to be castrated for the unauthorized deflowering of virgins. The American cut enhances this scene by having the kid with the tool chant, "Cut! Cut! Cut!"

Bearing in mind that the Director's Cut has a present-day political agenda of explaining the failures of Black Power uprisings in the late 1960s, both that and the American cut, which is stripped of most present-day context, also have something to say about slavery itself. The scenes at the slavery processing plant at Fort Bastille implicitly equate slavery with the modern assembly line, with the slave as the end product instead of a Model T Ford. Slaves are rushed from station to station for cleaning, grooming and feeding. At one point they're sent down a slide in the most obvious assembly-line metaphor. J&P are never explicit about this, but they appear to be saying that the industrialization of slave-processing contributed to a dehumanizing of the enslaved, their metamorphosis into parts on a conveyor belt. Throughout the film, this implicit thesis that the institution of slavery degraded Africans comes up against imagery that (perhaps) unintentionally encourages a belief that Africans were innately degraded, and hence easily adaptable to slavery.

In the second half of the film, the "traveling photographers" visit Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a racist scientist determined to prove that Africans are a separate species from humans. Among his caged slaves are a handful of American Indians who sit or stand in sullen silence. Cartwright explains that Indians are useless for slavery and can't be made to breed in captivity. The difference between blacks and Indians, he says, is like the difference between a dog and a coyote. You can beat a dog all the time, he elaborates, but he'll still lick your shoes, while the coyote, like the Indian, would rather die than live in captivity.

The words are put in the mouth of an odious crank, but as is consistent with the strategy of Addio Zio Tom they go unrefuted, and they leave a question hanging in the air. Were blacks incapable of even the passive resistance of willing themselves to die rather than endure slavery? Were they all too ready to adapt to their degraded condition by making themselves even more abject? Jacopetti and Prosperi took a risk in expecting that the historic racists would damn themselves with commentary that should have been obviously wrong to the modern movie audience. They felt no need to have someone in the film, even themselves as the time travellers, actively challenge the racist assertions of the 19th century. The only time they really go after a character in the film is when (in the American cut) they meet an educated slave who considers himself better off than the working-class poor. They express no comparable indignation to their white hosts. Since I get their point, I can agree with the idea that the shouldn't have had to go constantly through the film yelling, "this is wrong!" But something is unmistakably missing from either version of Tom that could have grounded the audience in a way that might have assured the correct response to the racist opinions expressed in the film. Simply put, while the Italian version is very much concerned with the "after" side of the story that plays out in the modern day, neither version is concerned with "before." In other words, Tom doesn't tell us what Africans were like before they were enslaved, and thus forces viewers to grapple with the either-way-loaded question of whether blacks were depraved by slavery or inherently depraved. There is no default state shown of free Africans in their native culture, and this is a fatal omission for the film's documentary ambitions. If J&P wanted to argue that American blacks were somehow changed for the worse by slavery, they needed to give us some idea of what they might have changed from. By their omission they left themselves vulnerable to the charge of racism since their cinematic argument had not effectively excluded the possibility of innate depravity as an explanation for the sordid spectacles presented.

Part of the problem may have been conceptual and tied to the "Addio" theme that links the film with Africa Addio, the movie for which Tom is allegedly an apology. "Africa Addio" refers both to the European imperialists' farewell to Africa and the disappearance of a certain European idea of Africa as Africans attempted to enter the modern world on their own terms. "Addio Zio Tom," in turn, refers as much to the extinction of the "Uncle Tom" archetype as it does to the end of slavery and its consequences. This is made clear in the prologue to the Director's Cut, in which Black Power radicals use "Uncle Tom" as a pejorative accommodationist blacks, while an elderly Southern matron retains a chauffeur who bears the infamous name. Wandering amid plantation ruins on her property, she babbles on about how much has remained the same while much has changed, as Tom smokes contemptuously nearby.

The literary Uncle Tom, as some may recall, was a character who resisted evil but refused violence, preferring to die rather than compromise his Christian principles. Sixties radicals rejected this proto-Gandhian archetype, preferring to fight, kill and live. Jacopetti and Prosperi's judgment seems to be that the radical stance was a surrender to hate, a tit-for-tat form of racism, and a fantasy of revenge.

All of this is embodied in the anonymous, clerical-looking man we find in the present day struggling to concentrate on the more violent chapters of William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. A controversial best-seller and prize-winner in its day, Confessions anticipated the scandal of Goodbye Uncle Tom by a few years as black and leftist critics questioned a white novelist's ability and right to get inside the head of a rebel slave, especially when Styron gave Turner's rebellion a sexual context. In all likelihood Jacopetti & Prosperi were aware of the controversy. For all I know they may have wanted to do a full-scale adaptation of Styron at some point. I do know from the Godfathers of Mondo documentary that one of their inspirations for Tom was, of all things, the novel Mandingo, which awaited adaptation by other hands a few years later.

The Confessions of Nat Turner seems to have influenced Tom's thesis that the intimate, perhaps inevitably sexualized milieu of slavery provoked thwarted desires in black men that played out, on rare occasions, in violent outbreaks of revenge against masters. The reader in Tom translates scenes from Turner into wild fantasies of modern murder raids on white families that segue into assaults on consumer goods possibly modeled on the explosive finale of Zabriskie Point. This is J&P's somewhat unsubtle way of saying that Black Power is no different from Nat Turner's purported pathology. Consciously associating themselves with Styron (whether Styron might have liked the idea or not) was only asking for trouble from an audience already inclined to conclude that any white men who imagined black men having violent thoughts had to be racists. Maybe this was the cynicism so often attributed to Jacopetti coming through, since the controversy surrounding Styron probably sold more books and may have seemed like a model for marketing a successfully controversial film. But whether the filmmakers' motivations were cynical or sincere, releasing Tom when they did was a catastrophic miscalculation.

One more difference between versions: In the Director's Cut, this scene comes when the traveling photographers leave the Old South in their helicopter. In the American cut, it plays during the pre-credits sequence as they arrive.

For some people, the only way for Jacopetti & Prosperi to absolve themselves of racism would have been to show blacks in a constant state of heroic resistance to slavery. That would have gone against their apparent conviction that slavery was as they showed it in Tom, and their rule was to call things as they saw them. Is it possible that a refusal to indulge in idealization is a form of racism, or that a willingness to idealize humanity as a whole is a prerequisite for democracy itself? I suppose those aren't questions for a movie blog, but it's a way of getting to the point that, due to sins of omission and commission, despite their best intentions, Goodbye Uncle Tom will never fully shake the charge of racism. And if the filmmakers' intent was to be positively provocative, maybe that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is definitely a testimony to the enduring visionary and emotional power of one of history's most provocative films.


J. Astro said...

Let the cynical side of me chime in here & point out that no matter HOW you depict members of any ethnic group or race or color or creed or whatever, -someone- will always find fault with it and decry it as a negative stereotype or as racist.

Trying to capture the collective experience of an entire group of people, i.e. slaves in this case, is in and of itself an exercise in stereotyping, because you automatically assume they all took the same thing from the experience. Unless you refuse to categorize -anything- and treat everyone and every thing as a complete and unconnected individual or idea, you run the risk of being "racist", stereotyping, or discriminating. And so, in most cases you are defeated before you begin, I'd say.

Rev. Phantom said...

Just got Addio Zio Tom from Netflix, I'll look into checking out the other version asap. I also have Vengeance is Mine (based on your recommendation) in my possession as well. Looks like I'll be having a Mondo 70 weekend.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Congratulations on a monumental series of posts about this film, Samuel. I've refrained from commenting because I haven't seen the subject under discussion, but definitely not from lack of enjoyment or intellectual stimulation provided by your deep consideration of it.

While I must admit I'm in no hurry to rush out and watch this one or others of its ilk (I watched the unabashedly exploitative Mandinga not long ago, which while I know it's not the same thing really at all, still left a bad taste in my mouth for such flicks), but I know that when and if I ever do check it out, it will be with more intelligence, understanding, and deep thought than it could have been otherwise, thanks to your exemplary work here. Kudos again.

Samuel Wilson said...

J: You make a good point. The problem with race slavery as a topic is that even if Jacopetti & Prosperi decided to tell the story through an individual experience, that individual would still be seen as representative, and if he had a bad fate it would be seen as reflecting poorly on the whole race. In this respect, J&P were as "defeated before you begin" as you can get.

Rev: Tastes may differ, but if I guarantee anything it is that Riz Ortolani's score will blow you away. It's one of the best ever for an Italian film.

Vicar, I like your use of "monumental" because I sometimes felt like I was digging my own grave with these posts:{ There definitely is something about racial oppression that makes it an unseemly subject for cinematic exploitation compared to when people of the same complexion do similar stuff to one another. As an American historian, I probably had more inclination to try this than others would, but I draw the line, too. I still haven't seen Salo, after all.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

I could accept the idea that Jacopetti & Prosperi were making this film in good faith as a statement about race in America, even if they didn't quite succeed...

if they had included any scenes from the point of view of blacks. And the ending scenes from Confessions of Nat Turner do not count.

There were many, many slave narratives and other first hand experiences of American slaves published in the 19th century. They are the other half of the story of slavery, and the filmmakers' decision to not include any of them is inexcusable.

The near-total silencing of blacks in this film paints them as this homogenous mass who can only mutely submit or explode in psychosexual rage. That's why it doesn't escape being exploitation.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, MFP. Yours is as cogent a critique of the film as I've seen. J&P could claim to have presented black viewpoints in the (presumably) documentary portions of the modern section, but it's definitely true that the Black Power activists, etc., are merely shown and not allowed to shape the directors' inquiry. J&P's position as essential outsiders and spectators of American racial conflict probably renders Tom irreducibly exploitative, but labelling it as such doesn't automatically dismiss the film as a work of art or act of provocation.

Anonymous said...

Which version contains the uncut version of the lady from New Orleans since the American cut does not have it?