Aug 232011

The Mondo 70 film blog has an interesting series of posts (from 2009) on exploitation classic (?) Goodbye Uncle Tom (I previously discussed the Italian director’s cut), including one that directly addresses the depiction of sexuality in this film.

I’ve described Tom as an attempt to show compassion toward the victims of slavery. But someone might well question whether it’s compassionate to stare at someone’s absolute subjugation and humiliation — or to have people re-enact the subjugation and humiliation of their ancestors. After all, as some racists believe, the Bible relates that Noah cursed Ham and his son Canaan, turning their descendants black, because Ham stared at Noah’s drunken nakedness. [Filmmakers] Jacopetti & Prosperi’s reading of scripture raises the stakes even further. They have a white preacher state that Ham and Canaan were cursed for castrating Noah. This may have been another, even more subconscious warning to the audience about the implications of what they would see in Tom.

The sensuality and sexuality is an important part of the story of slavery as told by Jacopetti & Prosperi. Slavery as practiced on the plantations had an inevitably sexual aspect because of the intimacy shared by slaves and masters. Tom makes the controversial and perhaps unacceptable suggestion that sex was not only a way for masters to dominate slaves, but also a way for slaves to negotiate their standing with masters. We see a heavy-footed Mammy castigating a girl for going to bed with Massa while still a virgin, and a supposed 13 year old girl urging the man behind the camera (in the Director’s Cut this is supposed to be a historical person relating an actual experience, but in the American version it may be one of our time-travelling narrators) to take her maidenhead. She helpfully offers the man a whip in case he needs that to get into the right frame of mind.

Goodbye Uncle Tom seems to fall into the same pit as other, 19th century attempts to humanize slaves by showing them as capable of suffering, but neglects to show them as capable of any other response to their conditions. The flipside of suffering is rage (masochism to sadism) and the film suggests that those are the only two responses for blacks, and it is only a matter of time until 300 years of pent-up rage explodes in helter-skelter.

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