Vintage Pulp Sep 30 2013
SLAVES OF THE REALM
Addio Zio Tom takes on difficult subject matter but doesn't flinch.


Have you ever seen anything quite like this? The temptation to watermark this piece of art was unbelievably strong, but we couldn’t splash lettering across something so unique. You’re probably thinking to yourself that this poster, which as you can see is for a movie entitled Good Bye Uncle Tom, is some obscure episode of 1970s blaxploitation, and you’d be right—in a sense. The movie was originally an Italian production made by directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, and was released in Italy as Addio Zio Tom. Here’s the premise: two contemporary documentary filmmakers go back in time to film the American slave trade in person. Here’s the result: one of the most important motion pictures ever made about that period of history. 

We live in strange times. Today, there are influential slavery apologists, and many people are perfectly content to believe them. Addio Zio Tom represents an inconvenient truth, because slave-era documents were culled for the first person writings of various prominent slavers. What the filmmakers end up with is essentially a step-by-step manual on the practice of slavery. And in an audacious screenwriting maneuver, snippets of those historical documents are converted directly into dialogue, so what you hear the slave owning characters say in Addio Zio Tom is exactly what real life slavers, pro-slavery politicians, slave owning Southerners, and slavery apologists actually thought.
 
In Addio Zio Tom we are shown how men and women were chained in the hulls of ships, where they lay in their own vomit and diarrhea for the weeks or months of the middle passage across the Atlantic. We are shown slaves literally tossed down chutes from the ship decks into holding pens once they arrived in America. We see depictions of the mass rape that slaves experienced. In one scene, white men too poor to own slaves of their own raid a slave plantation for the specific purpose of rape. We see torture, castrations, murders, and fugitives hunted down in the woods by vicious dogs. It’s an interminable and mindbending tableau of horrors, shot unflinchingly, indeed voyeuristically. Some say what Jacopetti and Prosperi depict is false. Those people don’t generally have any intelligent reason other than their personal conviction that slavery can’t have been that bad, or their “free”-market dogma that slaves were treated well because they were valuable cargo.
 
Actual history tells us different. Slaves were insured, as long as their deaths took place at sea, but that practice had little mitigating effect. The most commonly cited mortality figure for the middle passage is 2.5 to 4 million deaths. For a sense of the range of debate, though, consider that there are estimates as low as one million (still horrific), but conversely, as high as ten million if  you include those who died during forced marches to African slave ports. But even without exhaustive research, it isn'tdifficult to understand that Addio Zio Tom’s depictions are broadly accurate. Consider rape. Today, in maximum-security prisons, between ten and twenty percent of men report being raped. The actual number is far, far higher. In the armed forces about 20% of women report being sexually assaulted. The point is, more than four hundred years after the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade this is how men in positions of partial or total authority treat those within their power. How did they behave centuries ago, when their victims were literally their property?
 
Addio Zio Tom will make you think about things like that, but only if you’re willing. Of course, being a thought-provoking or important movie (which is the phrase we used at top), is very different from being a good movie. And here we get to the crux of it. We wouldn’t describe Addio Zio Tom as good. Audacious, yes. Technically impressive, certainly. A bold satire, perhaps. And beyond a doubt it’s complex—we can’t even get into the film’s contemporary framing device without writing three more paragraphs, so we won’t bother. But good? Hard to say. It’s a very difficult film to judge on its merits because of the subject matter. It was disastrously reviewed—that much is indisputable. Roger Ebert called it a contemptuous insult to decency.
 
In many of those reviews, Jacopetti’s and Prosperi’s motives came into question. It’s easy to understand why. For example, can you guess how the movie was even logistically possible? Because Jacopetti and Prosperi filmed in Haiti, where the genocidal dictator François Duvalier rounded up thousands of Haitian extras to be subjected to Addio Zio Tom’s degrading recreations of slave trade practices for mere pennies a day, orsometimes just a meal. Did Jacopetti and Prosperi believe they were serving a higher cause, and make a painful decision that dealing with Duvalier was a necessary evil? Or did they simply see it economically and decide the way to bring their vision to life was to depend upon someone who could treat humans as property?
 
In any case, getting back to the art, if you look closely you’ll notice this is actually a Japanese poster (one of two that were made), though nearly all the text is English. But we shared it today because the movie opened in Italy today in 1971. Also, though it took a while for the idea to sink in, the mole made the difference—it's possible that Radiah Frye is the model on the poster. Not 100%. But maybe. We featured her as one of our earliest femmes fatales, so if it's her it's a pleasant surprise to see her again. In summation, watch Addio Zio Tom if you dare.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
April 22
1912—Pravda Is Founded
The newspaper Pravda, or Truth, known as the voice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, begins publication in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the country's leading newspapers until 1991, when it is closed down by decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin. A number of other Pravdas appear afterward, including an internet site and a tabloid.
1983—Hitler's Diaries Found
The German magazine Der Stern claims that Adolf Hitler's diaries had been found in wreckage in East Germany. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a volume about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945. But the diaries are subsequently revealed to be fakes written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann go to trial in 1985 and are each sentenced to 42 months in prison.
April 21
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
April 20
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
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