Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hello to GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation Woodrow Wilson supposedly said it was like "history written with lightning." The magnum opus of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could well be described in the same way.

Griffith made his film, in part, in defense of slavery. The makers of Mondo Cane made Addio Zio Tom, in part, to condemn slavery. Yet both Birth of a Nation and Goodbye Uncle Tom have been called racist films. Worse yet, the Italians have been accused of exploiting slavery, even while condemning it. That's a sort of backhanded tribute to the incendiary, provocative power of the film's images. But there's also a kind of instinctual recognition that such a visceral re-enactment of historic atrocity can, maybe must stir up ugly emotions, including titilation as well as indignation. Add to the brew the fact that some of the most horrific scenes were filmed in Haiti with the cooperation of a monstrous tyrant, and people can't be blamed for feeling that there's something wrong with and about this film. And the filmmakers aren't playing innocent, either. They meant the movie as a provocation as well as an explanation -- but what was being explained, and what did they mean to provoke?

Those questions wouldn't be worth asking if Addio Zio Tom wasn't one of the most powerful visual statements ever filmed. I first saw the American edition on a dupey videotape about a decade ago, having never heard of it before, and I was stunned by its epic scope, not to mention the majestic, feverish score by Riz Ortolani. I've now had a chance to see what Jacopetti considers the definitive Italian version of the film, which includes material left out of the American edition and excludes stuff I remember from my first viewing. Since this is Blue Underground's DVD, the imagery is even more powerful.

This is an introduction to a series of posts I'm going to do on one of my favorite movies, one which I rank among the greatest of the 1970s. My approach to Uncle Tom emulates that of Nigel M.'s I Spit On Your Taste blog, where he dissects movies one theme or idea at a time. With Uncle Tom I have a lot of ground to cover: what were Jacopetti & Prosperi trying to say about slavery and its relevance to America in their own time? Were they racist? Were they exploiting the heritage of slavery, and how would we know if they were? Why did they go the extra mile to associate themselves with the controversy over William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner when they were probably in enough trouble before the final act? What are the differences between the Italian and American editions of the film, and is one more racist or exploitative than the other? There might not be one post per question, but I have a lot to say about this film and it seems advisable to present it in digestible chunks. Numerous posts also allow me to use a lot of screen captures. Just bear in mind that what you'll see here is the tip of an artistic iceberg, or volcano if you prefer.

Now that I've announced my preview, here's the trailer for the international version (known only as Uncle Tom), uploaded to YouTube by HumanoidCableDreads. Anyone likely to offended by mass display of naked breasts or the simulated dashing of babies against a bedroom wall had better not look.


Rev. Phantom said...

I'm adding this to my Netflix queue. I think I had a different impression on what this film was about. Seeing as it was from the same guys behind Mondo Cane, I figured it was in the same vein--a mondo movie, a genre of which I'm not really that into.

Samuel Wilson said...

Which version, Rev.? As I'll point out later, the choice makes a lot of difference.

Rev. Phantom said...

The uncut version. I think I had the film confused with mondo film, Africa Addio though.