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: probably the most important motion picture about that period of history ever made.
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 And in an audacious screenwriting maneuver, snippets of those historical documents are converted directly into dialogue, so what you hear the slave owning characters say in Addio Zio Tom is exactly what real life slavers, pro-slavery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 around 9 million deaths. For a sense of the range of debate, though, consider that there are estimates as low as 1.5 million (still horrific), but conversely, as high as 25 to 30 million. 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, though nearly all the text is English. But we shared it today because the movie opened in Italy today in 1971. Watch it if you dare.