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4.3.09

Addio Zio Tom (1972)



aka Goodbye, Uncle Tom

Director: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
Unrated Running time: 136 minutes
Released by Blue Underground

In 1966, a pair of Italian filmmakers released Africa Addio (aka Africa: Blood and Guts). Depicting the countless civil wars and incidences of tribal violence that have beset the Dark Continent since time immemorial, and full of African rituals that Western viewers found positively revolting, the documentary was a huge international hit. That success came with a price tag, and the two soon found themselves under attack from the more liberal segments of society and media who accused Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's film of being racist towards African culture. To be fair, Africa Addio, even with some very controversial "manufactured" scenes (including an incident where the two were accused of bribing some local militants to hold off on an execution until the filmmakers could set up their cameras), paints an unflattering portrait of ALL humanity - White and Black, alike. For all the indignation stirred up by Africa Addio, it is child's play when compared to the duo's next project -- which may be the only film ever produced specifically to instigate a race war.

If you believe the claims made by Jacopetti and Proseperi, Addio Zio Tom (aka Goodbye, Uncle Tom) was created with the intention of dispelling any nasty insinuations that they were nothing more than a pair of bigots out to make a buck off of society's inherent racism. The film - which operates under the premise that the filmmakers are magically transported back in time to the beginning of the slave trade in America, where they sought to document the countless horrors and injustices rendered upon the poor, innocent Black people - is about as well-intentioned as a person who puts on blackface and speaks in jive in order to relate better to their African-American neighbors.

Scenes of modern (late 60's/early 70's) America are intercut with the filmmakers' "re-creations" of various aspects of slave existence. We see ships with black people packed together like sardines, force fed a disgusting-looking gruel, and occasionally having corks shoved in their bottoms. We see them shaved, scrubbed with lye, and inspected in the same way one would inspect a farm animal. Young girls being subjected to brutal rapes at the hands of vicious, animal-like bucks (one even whinnies like a horse when he opens his mouth) for the purpose of creating bigger and better workers. We see the white man (and woman) free to indulge in whatever perverted sexual whim that might cross their diseased little minds (all white people are evil and demented in Jacopetti and Prosperi's universe). Virtually any sort of abuse, torture, or degradation you can imagine has been lovingly catalogued by the Italian "documentary" makers. After two hours of appalling scene after appalling scene, we meet a modern Black man wearing spectacles and an Afro. He reads passages from William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" while watching carefree White people enjoy a day at the beach, blissfully unaware of their murderous pasts. The Black man fantasizes about leading a modern-day slave rebellion in which we see several suburban white folks get slashed, smashed, and bashed by militant Black men. A baby is even lifted out of its cradle and slammed headfirst into a wall. This closes the film, and presumably provides Black America with a solution for all their ills - kill the White devils.

Jacopetti and Prosperi's distortions of historical facts are as appalling as the many scenes of abuse. I will not go into a point-by-point refutation of the film's version of American "history", but I will say that it is clear that Jacopetti and Prosperi had absolutely no intentions of creating a sober, accurate portrait of the Antebellum days of the South. Addio Zio Tom is a propaganda piece, one created with the express purpose of adding fuel to the already white-hot state of American race relations in the early 70's. And to that dubious goal, the film certainly succeeds. No one watching this film will come away unaffected. All people, white or black, are certain to be filled with anger or digust, and maybe a little of both. Whether those bad feelings are directed towards each other, or towards the filmmakers, depends upon which side of the ideological fence you happen to be standing on.

All the criticisms about the filmmakers' intentions or their blatant disregard for any historical evidence which opposes their agenda will not change one very important fact about this film: it is a masterpiece. The photography and editing are incredible, creating a collage-like visual experience that, whether you like it or not, you cannot forget. Riz Ortolani's score runs through the entire film, sounding like a marching band version of Del Shannon's "Runaway", and adds a surreal note to the already provocative images presented by the filmmakers. Sometimes silly, sometimes profound, it is a catchy, upbeat contrast to the countless horrors we see onscreen. It took about a week for the damned thing to get out of my head, leaving the experience that is Addio Zio Tom lingering in my consciousness much longer than I would have liked.

What is funny is that even now, there are some people (with dubious claims to being "intellectuals") who continue to insist that Addio Zio Tom is a documentary. These people often have agendas of their own, and conveniently ignore the fact that the film is exactly what it appears to be: an irresponsible, crass exploitation film which creates the same kind of feelings in the viewer that the maker's pretend to condemn. There really isn't any other movie like this - except for maybe Cannibal Holocaust. To those who decide to hop into the time machine with Jacopetti and Prosperi, bring a strong stomach and a healthy skepticism. You're gonna need them.

You might be wondering where Jacopetti and Prosperi found so many Black people willing to spend much of their screentime stark naked and participating in a smorgasbord of humiliating activities. Why, you can thank a certain Haitian dictator who went by the name of "Papa Doc" for that. Sort of interesting that a film that claims to document that White man's enslavement of Black people, was made with the assistance of a Black man who, in a sense, had made slaves out of his own people.

5 out of 5.


2 comments:

  1. This movie is SICK! It is the most disgusting piece of filth I have ever had the misfortune to sit through.

    What's weird is, I was fascinating by it. It's sickening and gross, but you just can't walk away. This flick will mess your life up!

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  2. I'm surprised this movie didn't cause riots when it was released.

    8 wonder if it played in many theaters back in the day?

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