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Goodbye Uncle Tom - August 2010


What is your opinion of the Goodbye Uncle Tom, the Italian film directed by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi?

--Dennis Canon - Birmingham, Alabama


Years ago, I wanted the students in my Images of Blacks in Popular Culture course to analyze some of the ways slavery in the United States had been depicted in films. We started with Gone with the Wind, the 1939 award-winning blockbuster. The movie's White characters are portrayed in the main as elegant and impressive, and in some instances gallant. The White Southerners are noble defenders of traditional values. Blacks are one-dimensional caricatures, for example, the character Prissy is a pickaninny, Pork fits the Tom caricature, and the Mammy character -- the role played by Hattie McDaniel -- is a prototype of Mammy caricatures. Even though the movie is set in the South and much of the action occurs on and near a plantation, the issue of slavery is largely ignored.

Next, we watched Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the epic tale of Pulitzer-prize winning author Alex Haley's ancestors, beginning with the capture of a free African (Kunta Kinte) and his enslavement, and ending with a retailing of the personal journey of Alex Haley to discover his roots. For eight days in January of 1977, Americans sat transfixed and stunned watching the eight part mini-series; for the first time they realized that slavery was more than people working without pay. Roots showed Black slaves being forcibly separated from their families, whipped, dismembered, treated worse than chattel; and, it showed later generations of Haley's family struggling against poverty, ignorance (theirs and Whites), and racism. Most of my students had never seen Roots, but when it first aired it averaged a 44.9 rating and a 66 audience share. It riveted the nation. The seven episodes that followed the opener earned the top spots in the ratings for their week. The final episode was the highest rated single-episode until 1983. Roots was a cultural phenomenon prompting important national dialogues on slavery and race relations.

Roots gave Americans a glimpse into the horrors of slavery, but it was only a glimpse. The mini-series was a docu-drama, not a documentary. A historically accurate depiction of the African American experience, especially their enslavement, would be difficult to watch as entertainment. It would be obscene and pornographic in every sense of those words. Witnessing beatings, rapes, torture, and killings would make viewers turn away, run, and find some way to distance what they were seeing from the world they know. The producers of Roots were daring to show as much as they did.

Goodbye Uncle Tom

The final movie we watched was Goodbye Uncle Tom (Addio Zio Tom in Italian), a bizarre and repulsive portrayal of slavery in the United States. Before watching the movie, we read reviews of the film; reviewers described the abundance of sex and violence in Goodbye Uncle Tom. Many reviewers claimed that Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the movie's producers, delighted in the rape and torture of the Blacks in the movie, as evidenced by the way the camera lingered on Black women being raped and the way Black men were killed in slow motion. We discussed the genre that is sometimes called shockumentaries, including Africa Addio (1966), which depicted Africans as savages, and included scenes of deplorable animal butchering and people killed onscreen, also produced by Jacopetti and Prosperi. We knew that these producers had reputations for being incendiary gore merchants with a fetish for debasing Africans.

I had watched Goodbye Uncle Tom before showing it to my students. I tried to answer my students' questions about the film in an objective, matter-of-fact manner. Then, I told them that anyone who did not want to watch the movie could watch Birth of a Nation, the highest grossing film of the silent film era, and a movie that did as much damage to the images of Black Americans as did any single movie. Four students took that option. On the day that we watched Goodbye Uncle Tom three students had unexcused absences, several cried while watching, one almost vomited; most sat, sad and disgusted. I taught for another fifteen years but I never showed that movie again.

Let me pause and offer a little context. The movie was made in 1971. Richard Nixon was the President. The nation was still dealing with the aftermath of the Mai Lai Massacre, the assassination of Martin Luther King, scores of anti-war protests, the Kent State University and Jackson State University shootings of protestors, and many civil rights demonstrations. A revolt broke out at the maximum-security prison in Attica, New York. State police and the National Guard stormed the facility; 42 people were killed, 10 of them hostages. The Black Power Movement -- which emphasized racial pride and the creation of Black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote Black collective interests -- was in full bloom in the United States. Blacks were watching Melvin Van Peebles', Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Gordon Parks' Shaft, and other "blaxploitation" movies where Blacks were killing Whites.

Goodbye Uncle Tom

Jacopetti and Prosperi watched with great interest the general turmoil and racial conflicts in the United States. They believed that Blacks and Whites would always hate one another because of slavery, and they decided to produce a movie to prove it. Jacopetti and Prosperi time traveled (by helicopter) to the slavery period in the United States. So, here is the simple, though impossible, approach of the film: identify some of the worse documented features of slavery and have modern-day interviewers (themselves) go back in time to interview and watch the people involved. The bulk of the film is an orgy of brutality against slaves portrayed in the most graphic ways imaginable, with the tormentors pausing long enough to rationalize their behavior to the mostly invisible interviewers.

In one of the early scenes -- one thankfully devoid of physical violence -- the interviewers met a group of dining Southern aristocrats and one Northerner, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The interviewers were introduced as Europeans, Catholics, and journalists in town to "conduct an inquest on slavery." The aristocrats pontificated about slavery and slaves, while shoveling left-over chicken and other food to Black children under the table. Here is a clip: The entire movie is on YouTube.

The movie is an orgy of anti-Black torture and degradation. The filmmakers visited a slave ship discharging its cargo, several hundred diseased and malnourished Africans. The imagery was stomach turning. The people who played the roles of slaves were, in real life, impoverished Haitians. In many of the film's scenes, especially the auction scenes, Blacks were naked or near naked. Why would the "actors" (they received no mention in the movie's credits) subject themselves to this treatment? Well, poverty is a harsh master. Maybe this also explains why parents allowed their children to be presented in what can only be described as pornographic scenes. There were brothels populated by Black women for White men and effeminate Black boys for White men; the young boys were completely naked. Young girls were offered to old White men for sexual purposes -- and in one instance a 13-year-old begged the "interviewer" to have sexual relations. There was a horrific rape scene where a virginal Black woman was mated to a "Black stud." This occurred on a "breeding farm." Slaves were tortured for offenses, real and imagined. The viewer heard from a preacher who argued for the moral and spiritual necessity of slavery. White hunters of escaped slaves were "interviewed."

Blacks were handled like animals, especially at auctions where they were sold or won in raffles. At the auctions they were gaudily dressed, sometimes like minstrels, or they were completely naked. All the language used to refer to Blacks was dehumanizing, for example, calling a boy being auctioned "It." In one scene, a well-dressed White girl ran accompanied by a Black boy; she held a chain that connected to his throat. Whites were referred to as humans; mixed-race Blacks were called part-human. Throughout the film it was clear that major portions of all of society's most important institutions -- government, religion, education, science, criminal justice, politics, family, and mass media -- supported the institution of slavery. This is, alas, historically accurate.

You asked me what is my opinion of the Goodbye Uncle Tom? It is a more truthful portrayal of the brutality and obscenity of slave life than was Roots; however, I have some major problems with the film. I find it ironic that a movie that explored the exploitation and degradation of Black people was filmed in a way that exploited and degraded Black people. In some ways Goodbye Uncle Tom was just a XXX movie set against the backdrop of slavery; the "peculiar institution" served as an excuse to show sexual and violent gore. Jacopetti and Prosperi told a great many painful truths about slavery but they debased hundreds of Blacks to make the film.

Moreover, none of the slaves spoke against their oppression; they were voiceless, passive recipients of degradation and torture. This is historically inaccurate. There were over 250 slave revolts and it was common for slavers to sleep with guns at hand. The fear of slave revolts was constant and one of the justifications that slavers used for the harsh oppression of slaves. But, and this point should not be lost, slaves rebelled in other ways, for example, destroying tools and feigning illness. Although Roots seemed hell-bent on rushing toward a happy ending, it is the case that it is a more accurate depiction of slaves, and certainly their descendants, fighting and struggling to toss aside the yoke of oppression.

What do I think of the movie? I believe the racial prejudices of the producers were apparent. The producers relied heavily on then-current caricatures of Mammy, Tom, Sambo, Nat, and Pickaninnies. The myth of the "Happy Darky," for example, was prevalent throughout the film with Blacks laughing and grinning, despite being victimized. There is one scene where a crowd of Blacks laughed excitedly as a Black man was castrated. Incongruently, it is also clear that the producers saw Blacks as violent savages shackled by slavery, and once they were free of bondage their natural predilections for violence would manifest. This is apparent at the movie's conclusion where a present-day African-American read William Styron's The Confession of Nat Turner and fantasizes re-enacting Turner's bloody massacre of Whites. In 1971, when Goodbye Uncle Tom was filmed, many American Blacks were still committed to the non-violence teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Howard Thurman, and others, some of whom never made the history books and essays.

I am going to make a comparison that will probably upset more than a few people, but it is a comparison that makes sense in my head. I am thinking of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (originally called The Passion). There are scenes where Jesus was brutally beaten. When I sat watching the scourging I wanted it to stop. Many critics of the movie criticized the beatings as obscene. Maybe the scenes were necessarily obscene. I believe that most modern day Americans would be sickened by the sight of a man being flogged -- though many did watch floggings and lynchings in the mid-1900s. The Passion of the Christ made me cry, in part, because I believed that the portrayals of the flogging and mob beating were accurate; they were certainly more truthful than the many movies that show Jesus only being mocked, spat on, and slapped a couple of times. The veracity of an incident exists independent of my comfort with watching its re-creation. And, the character, motives, and actions of the filmmaker do not detract from the accuracy of the movie's content.

I said all of that to say this: Jacopetti and Prosperi were not the messengers that I would have selected, and their implied assumptions about Blacks are troubling, but they made a movie that accurately portrayed the horrors of slavery. Of course, it is the case that a realistic depiction of the savagery of slavery would be difficult to watch no matter who made it. This is why when you finish watching Roots you may feel that a family has overcome great oppression and a nation has become more democratic; whereas when you finish watching Goodbye Uncle Tom you just feel sick to your stomach.

August 2010 response by
Dr. David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery