Jan 102009

I think that if we could ever somehow travel back in time and directly observe the past, ancient Rome wouldn’t look like Russel Crowe in Gladiator. It would look more like Caligula or Fellini Satyricon. Not because those two films are particularly historically accurate, but because watching them conveys the constant sense of “WTF?!?” you get when you visit a very different culture.

Likewise, would the actual Antebellum South look like the first act of Gone with the Wind, or would it look more like this:

This is from Addio zio Tom, or Goodbye Uncle Tom. It’s an Italian film that presents itself as documentary film crew going back in time to the days of slavery. It lies in the ambiguous ground between exploitation pornography and documentary (two genres which have always been kissing cousins). However, dismissing this film as another piece of exploitation sleaze from the people who brought you the Mondo film series is a little unfair. It may be that, to modern sensibilities, the reality of Atlantic slavery can’t be conveyed in legitimate film, but only through exploitation film.

Consider that in the first edition of Stedman’s Narrative, he’s very frank about the sexual opportunities of being a white man in the Caribbean surrounded by African slaves. In the second edition, the African woman he meets on his first night there is aggressive and masculinized. Which of these versions is true? The first is a classic male sexual fantasy, while the second has the sexual aggression displaced on the African woman, making it more suitable for the general reading public, which includes (white) women. The truth was pornography, the lie was documentary.

Recall also that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was deliberately written with minimal explicit sex and violence, and became a world wide bestseller, while Harriet Ann Jacob’s autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which was quite frank about the constant threat of sexual attack she lived under, had its publication stop for being too explicit.

Certain things are difficult to process, and there’s always the urge to avoid dealing with difficult things directly through humor, empty cliches or other methods, including exploitation film and erotic fantasy. Ironically, an exploitation film like this could get closer to the “truth” of the Antebellum South than a classic Hollywood film like Gone with the Wind (in which, IIRC, the word “slave” is never uttered) or a modern, serious message film like Amistad.

There are numerous other clips from Goodbye Uncle Tom on YouTube, so you can make up your own mind.

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