Sunday, 25 September 2011

Goodbye Uncle Tom (In Depth Film Review)

In Goodbye Uncle Tom, two documentarists "travel" to the old American South and explore the slave economy. This world is recreated in all of its brutal and corrosive details, from the shipping to America of slaves in the hulls of ships - the sickening conditions with diarrhoea-ridden slaves chained in their own filth is emphasised - to the brothels where large Mammies coral underage girls for the delectation of white clients. The film is made on an enormous scale.

The scenes in the slave markets and on the plantations have literally hundreds of extras, and the marshalling of crowds alone makes the film an exceptional achievement. This is no low-budget cheap-flick but a full, cinemascope extravaganza featuring vast hordes of extras, sweeping crane shots and unfeasibly intricate dolly shots which travel through large sets and teaming crowds, a swarming mass of human flesh, the sheer scale of which leaves one's mouth dropped open in wonder. That wonder is turned into awed disbelief as the brutal, nerve-wrecking content of the film unfolds before one's eyes. This is Gone With The Wind mixed with a supersized portion of Salo.

The film is completely plot less. It features a series of set-pieces - all based on research into actual conditions, events and personages - each of which show an aspect of the slave trade. A bustling church has a preaching pro-slavery Pastor presiding over the gelding of African bucks. A mansion is filled to the brim with dozens of slaves, making beds, cooking dinner and helping Missies to dress. A group of nasty-looking rednecks roam a swamp, massacring escaped "merchandise."

The scenes get nastier as the film progresses - which seems to be the only logic to the film's progression. There is a particularly insane sequence in which a "veterinary" tells us of his work on the slaves, a sequence redolent of Mengele and the atrocities of the Nazis (the ludicrous German accent this character is given encourages us to make this leap). The final old Southern section of the film concerns a young virgin girl taken to a "breeding farm" and mated by with a nasty, violent old buck stud - the fat "farmer" pontificates merrily about stock as the victim is led to an event which is destined to rip her sexual organs to shreds… What is especially freakish about the film is its overwhelming prurience. The camera lingers over the naked male and female bodies of the slaves, and revels in their degradation. This creates a profoundly uneasy feeling in the viewer. It is not merely that this film offers an indictment of an economy in which human flesh became literally a commodity, backed up with the most noxious racial supremacism, but that it dwells so excessively on the minutiae of humiliation and hatred. It almost wills itself to become a repellent and fascinating object - which one could argue is the more honest attitude to take towards human evil. It is as if Goodbye Uncle Tom were the vomit of history flung in the face of the audience, and the audience were being tempted to dance in it a little, as well as vomit over themselves.

The end of the film - and it is a long (123 minute) film - is as extraordinary and thoroughly reprehensible as the rest. We suddenly cut to then contemporary America, and watch a black preacher/panther walking along a Florida beach, watching the frolicking wealthy whities at play. He reads The Confessions of Nat Turner - a true-life account of a slave who massacred a number of slaver families in 1831 - and fantasises about killing the honkies around him. Those fantasies are shown to us by the filmmakers in lurid detail, and whitebread families get axes in their heads, knives in their stomachs and their babies battered against walls. This is an incendiary sequence, and must have been particularly shocking in 1971.

It is very difficult to know what to make of Goodbye Uncle Tom. On the one hand, its lurid exploitative nature is enough to repel even the most hardened of extreme cinema enthusiasts. What is more, the economics and morality of the film's actual making is enough to send one reeling in horror in and of themselves. It was filmed in Haiti, and a thank you appears on the credits to Papa Doc. It is doubtful any of the thoroughly degraded extras were paid very much for their work, which suggests that the film is itself a product of a coercive and slave-driving economic system; and let's not forget, Haiti was a former slave colony.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a film which did more to make the realities of the slave-based economic system more palpable and horrifying. In refusing the audience the comforting delights of character individuation, journeys, change and anything other than economic/racial relationships, the film does constitute an effective dramaturgy for dealing with such an unmitigatingly inhuman episode in human history. In a way, a film like Amistad makes it all alright that slavery happened, because the liberal humanist Spielberg pulls out the trump card of the dignity of the human spirit, the chance for which to triumph slavery (like the holocaust) happened to offer. There is absolutely no human dignity on show in Goodbye Uncle Tom. Slavery is not a business where dignity comes into the equation. One of the film's most intriguing characters in a slave who boasts of his price in the market, his value to his masters, and the healthcare and help in old age which a good master can provide for him. He is an embelmatic proletarian historical figure...

What is on show in Goodbye Uncle Tom is a dazzling display of film-making technique. From an editing, cinematographic and staging point of view, the film is a masterpiece.


  1. Your review is wonderful Jesse, in fact it's so well written that this film doesn't deserve it!

  2. brilliant review, Jesse. Much better than the film sounds to be

  3. Thank you ;3
    Yes, I think the second is the best, too.
    Yes I'm on facebook. You too?
    Waiting for something makes me so~ nervous. What cosplay do you do?

  4. Italiano con subtitulos en ingles, 2:15:46

    subtitulos ingles:
    subtitulos espaƱol (traduccion incompleta)


    Doblada al ingles, 2:03:50 (cortada escenas M.Luther King)

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