Mar 092011

In the early years of the 16th century, to combat the rising tide of religious unorthodoxy, the Pope gave Cardinal Ximinez of Spain leave to move without let or hindrance throughout the land, in a reign of violence, terror and torture that makes a smashing film. This was the Spanish Inquisition…

Monty Python

I’ve only seen clips of the notorious Goodbye Uncle Tom (IMDB, Wikipedia, Google Video), an Italian pseudo-documentary that purportedly shows a recreation of the antebellum South with a focus on slavery. I decided to review the whole thing, and rented the director’s cut on DVD, which is not dubbed into English.

There are startling, horrifying spectacles recreated in this film, beginning with the horrors of the Middle Passage and running through the process of sale and labour, a perverse initiation narrative. There are periodic rapes and other abuses and mutilations. The overwhelming impression is an homogenous mass of brown humanity, undifferentiated by sex or age. How exactly they managed to get so many extras willing to be naked is beyond me.

Perhaps the most startling segments are about sexual relations, which vary widely in mood. One scene shows a white woman whose idea of sport is to ride out into the fields and scare out the black couples who have been having sex here. There are only two scenes of sex between blacks. One is sweetly sentimental, as well as heterosexual and monogamous. The other is a grotesque breeding farm, in which a black virgin girl is thrown to a mentally-damaged black man for impregnation. Other scenes include the rape orgy of white “cracker” men on black females, with their children watching; a house where sex slaves are dressed and sold; the sexual access to slaves granted by masters to male guests; and the implications of slavery producing mixed race children, which white women attribute to a pre-Darwin concept of blacks evolving to look more like whites.

One of the odder segments, so odd I thought someone had spliced in footage from one of the Ilsa movies, concerns Madame Delphie Lalaurie. A fire at her house in New Orleans uncovered evidence of the torture of her slaves. Goodbye Uncle Tom depicts her walking around her New Orleans house in a see-through gown, escorted by her black companion and tormenting slaves. One shot shows a heaving pile of beautiful, opium-drugged slaves, pulsing like a single organism. (A curious echoes of the earlier images depicting slaves as an undifferentiated mass of humanity.)

Whether Lalaurie’s treatment of her slaves was any worse or better than that of her contemporaries is A, impossible to determine and B, not terribly relevant. Just as the Ilsa character played by Dyanne Thorne was very loosely based on the real “Witch of Buchenwald”, Ilse Koch, Delphine Lalaurie has become myth, and there are few archetypes as compelling as the cruel, cannibalistic mother. Subsequent books, stories and other media elevate her to the status of seductive monster, a Gothic figure of sexual excess and bodily horror. The deviant society (fascism, genocide, slavery) is symbolized by the deviant individual (the sexually aggressive, violent, domineering woman).

For a film about slavery, the voices of actual slaves are conspicuously absent. In fact, it isn’t until the end of the film that we get testimony from any black person in the period. There is certainly no lack of material, given that there were many slave narratives published in the 19th century, before and after emancipation. The previously discussed Incidents in the life of a slave girl by Harriet Jacobs is just one example.

The slave in question was Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, who lead a slave uprising that resulted in the deaths of 56 white people. In the film, Turner’s first-person account is juxtaposed with a present day black man reading of Turner’s experience while watching a white, bourgeois family on the beach and fantasizing about invading their home and slaughtering them. (This may only be in the director’s cut version.)

Potent stuff. However, I thought something was off when I heard the alleged voice of Nat Turner rhapsodize about a blond girl’s hair in the sunlight, and I found that what the black man was reading was The Confessions of Nat Turner, a 1967 novel by William Styron. I emphasize that this was a novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction, and expands considerably on Turner’s largely undocumented life, depicting Turner as brooding and sexually disturbed. Much like Delphine Lalaurie, the sparsely documented historical figure has been overwhelmed by the mythic figure required by historical narrative. In this case, Turner becomes a figure of divince retribution, consumed by lust and hatred. Another sexual archetype.

So, should we just consign Goodbye Uncle Tom to the same exploitation shelf as the other Mondo films? Or did it have anything to say about race or history or sex, even in the 1970s? I think it makes the point, perhaps unwittingly, that slavery was built on millions of acts of individual violence, and that more than a century after emancipation, that violence is still there like a bad smell. For people whose views of ante-bellum slavery might be based on Gone with the Wind and the like, this could be seen as a necessary corrective.

On the other hand, this is very much in the blood’n’guts’n’tits’n’ass school of filmmaking, which speaks to the emotions, not the intellect. It reproduces the myth of the South as a place of sexual anarchy, the same kind of thinking that produced BDSM fantasy as we know it. What surprises me is just how many parallels there are between how people think about antebellum slavery and how they think about another traumatic historical event, the Holocaust and WWII. These events produced a wide range of discourses, some legitimate (epic drama, historical novels) and some illegitimate, such as horror, exploitation and BDSM fantasy.

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