Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
California State University, San Marcos
In recent decades, scholars have paid increasing attention to the Haitian Revolution. Yet while numerous films have been made on other revolutions, the Haitian Revolution still suffers from neglect. The American actor/director Danny Glover has sought to fill this lacuna with an epic production on Toussaint Louverture, the Revolution’s leading general. However, the project has run into multiple roadblocks and may never be realized.
In 2012, the French TV station France 2 aired a two-part miniseries on Toussaint, which many hoped would fill this gap. However, the film is deeply problematic. Though it was well-intentioned and has some positive features, overall it represents a distortion (I would even say a revisionist view) of slavery, as well as of the Haitian Revolution; the film implicitly shifts blame from French whites and toward mulattoes, the Spanish and even blacks themselves. The violence of slave-owners is almost entirely absent, while that of slave rebels is shown in vivid detail. In its shortcomings, I would argue, the movie exemplifies French amnesia about the Haitian Revolution and ambivalence about slavery and colonialism in general.
On the one hand, it is remarkable that the film was even made. Western filmmakers tend to shy away from subjects like the Haitian Revolution; issues of race and slavery remain emotionally fraught long after abolition. When European or American directors do portray slavery, they generally minimize its brutality (see for instance the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind, and more recently Frank Wildhorn’s 1999 Broadway musical The Civil War, which reduces slavery’s ills to the separation of spouses who are sold to different plantations). Even American films that deal more seriously with the violence of slavery (or civil rights struggles) seem to need a white hero, as in Amistad and Mississippi Burning. Glover stated that he was unable to get his project financed in the U.S. and in Europe for just this reason. One film loosely based on the Haitian Revolution, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, took liberties with Haitian history precisely in positing a white character, played by Marlon Brando, as the puppet-master of the Revolution, rather than suggesting that African slaves planned their revolt. For their part, Haitian directors have focused on more recent historical events in their works (see for instance Raoul Peck’s 2013 masterpiece Assistance mortelle, a devastating indictment of the international response to the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake).
It is doubly impressive that the film was made in France. As a number of recent studies have noted, there has been a kind of amnesia in France regarding Haitian history and slavery in general. So little-known is this history that Jacques Chirac insisted in 2000 that Haiti had never actually been a French colony. French amnesia about Haiti and the history of slavery has only recently begun to change, following the 2005 Taubira law mandating teaching about French slavery. The persistence of what I call “Me Free Too” scholarship has also thwarted the making of a historiographically sound film on Haiti’s Revolution. This paradigm implies that slaves would not have thought of revolting until they were exposed to Enlightenment and revolutionary ideals, which made them decide that they should be free also.
The director, Philippe Niang, a Frenchman of mixed French and Senegalese heritage, hoped to rectify these gaps, and make Toussaint better known. Niang tapped the Haitian-American actor Jimmy Jean-Louis (Heroes) to play Toussaint; Jean-Louis was thrilled to get the role of a lifetime. Approximately 3 million French viewers watched the miniseries. The program was followed by a highly unusual on-air roundtable about slavery and race, which raised issues rarely discussed on French television.
Aside from the fact that the film introduced this history to viewers at all, the miniseries had other virtues. Jean-Louis imbued Toussaint with dignity. Such a portrayal is especially significant considering longtime debates about Louverture. For many years, foreigners portrayed him in racist ways. In scholarly literature, the general was depicted as a “devil” or a “saint.” A recent wave of scholarship has rendered Toussaint in more nuanced terms, recognizing his virtues and flaws, but also the difficult circumstances in which he had to operate given foreign eagerness to recapture the island. Against this new scholarship, Pierre Pluchon and Philippe Girard have portrayed Toussaint more negatively. Girard has contended that Toussaint and his fellow leaders of the Revolution were not motivated by principle, but were as greedy as French colonists. In contrast, the movie offers a principled and honorable Louverture. Though he has human flaws (including a fatal stubbornness), he is a sincere fighter for universal freedom. While there are certainly inaccuracies in this portrayal, representing a former African slave in this manner is noteworthy.
Aïssa Maïga’s turn as Toussaint’s wife Suzanne is also remarkable, considering that Saint-Domingue’s women of color have historically been depicted as sex-obsessed temptresses. The film’s Suzanne is a practical, pious and feisty market woman and single mother. She knows how to read, and at first has no interest in Toussaint’s attempts to woo her. While some parts of the role may be anachronistic (it is unclear whether the historical Suzanne would have spoken to Toussaint as bluntly as this one does), she still represents a highly unusual case among portrayals of black women in European or American film.
Nevertheless, despite the film’s virtues, its depictions of the Haitian Revolution – and of the slave system which preceded it – are deeply flawed. It is perhaps inevitable that a historical drama has factual errors; indeed, as critics were quick to point out, the film departs from the truth so often that one loses count. Inaccuracies range from depicting Suzanne as skinny though sources say she was not, to inventing characters who never existed (such as the Napoleonic officer Pasquier, who drives the film’s narration), to killing off characters who survived until years later (such as Biassou, Mars Plaisir, and Toussaint’s father). Such criticism led to a last-minute change in the film’s description to an oeuvre de fiction (“work of fiction”). It also occasioned a lively debate: how far can a filmmaker stretch the truth when dealing with history? Niang professed more interest in depicting the general injustices faced by Toussaint and his family than in adhering to the historical record: “I would have produced a documentary if I wanted to make something faithful to history.” Critics worried that viewers would remember the film’s invented parts rather than real facts.
But the factual errors (and a soapy style) are hardly the worst aspects of the film. While Niang likely did not realize he was doing so, the film papers over the brutality of slavery. Violence against slaves is almost non-existent. Even in isolated instances (such as an invented scene where Toussaint’s chained father drowns; another where his invented sister reports being raped; and another in which mob of angry colons chases Toussaint), the film is quick to contrast bad whites with kindly slave-owners. Whippings are completely absent; work on the plantation looks peaceful and bucolic. While Toussaint’s master Bayon de Libertad was reportedly a kind master, no other plantations are shown to give a more realistic view of slavery in Saint-Domingue.
This film, which aims to educate French audiences about Haitian history, thus offers a revisionist history of slavery. Certainly, the film suggests, the notion of a human owning another offends les droits de l’homme, and therefore was unjust. On the other hand, the movie implies, slavery was not really that bad. Parties on Bayon’s plantation featured happy black servants serving smiling whites. Slaves like Toussaint went on pleasure-rides to markets, where they could flirt with attractive women and joke about their “melons.” Slave-owners were like bosses who involved slaves in profit-sharing. Toussaint’s master freed him as a surprise birthday present after an especially bountiful sugar crop; he later was repaid with ingratitude when Toussaint opted to leave the plantation to strike out on his own. The film offers a kind of nostalgia for the era of slavery, suggesting that whites and blacks coexisted peacefully. Though Suzanne was enslaved when Toussaint met her, the film renders her free, so we can be told that she too was liberated by the benevolent slave-owner who fathered her child and taught her to read. All that we know about torture on Saint-Domingue – reportedly the most brutal of New World slave societies because of its high ratio of slaves to slave-owners, and thus the greater danger of revolt – is missing from the film.
The film consequently negates the idea that slaves could have been unhappy about their fate, until they learned from the philosophes that being unfree was wrong. The film’s Toussaint was pleased with his life until he was introduced to the abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes. As Toussaint recalls from prison, “That book opened my eyes. Back then, I thought of myself as happy. But I was only a slave who was slightly better off than the others” (Ep. 1, 17:58). While Toussaint did claim in 1799 to have read Raynal and to have been influenced by him, Daniel Desormeaux and Deborah Jenson have viewed this as a strategic move meant to make the general more palatable to French audiences at a time when he was viewed as anti-French. More crucially, the passage on which the scene is based does not suggest that Toussaint was happy until a book changed his mind; it says merely that he already saw slavery as an injustice, and deepened this view after hearing of Raynal. The script also has Toussaint declare in 1802, after Leclerc captured him, that “for the first time in my life I was no longer master of anything… not even my destiny.” (Ep. 2, 1:24:27). To hear such words emerge from the mouth of a former slave is astounding. The film therefore represents an extreme example of “Me Free Too” thinking. Nowhere do we learn about resistance on the island before 1789, let alone the African ideas of liberty that slaves brought to the New World.
Whites in general are portrayed sympathetically in the film. For every villain like the Napoleonic General Cafarelli (portrayed as murdering Toussaint’s servant Mars Plaisir, though he did no such thing), the film offers numerous virtuous whites. Niang’s General Leclerc hardly resembles the deceitful, incompetent, massacring general chronicled in recent studies. In real life, Leclerc did not allow Louverture’s sons (who had been studying in France) to disembark when his troops arrived in Saint-Domingue in 1802, angering Louverture and perhaps forcing conflict between the men. The film’s Leclerc is a nice, young handsome French general who is happy to let the Louverture boys go ashore. Napoleon voices his commitment to black freedom, and Leclerc is forced to fight Toussaint only because the latter shows dangerous insubordination. Leclerc laments that because the slave rebels do not observe honored principles of war that he will have to depart from the revolutionary values he holds dear, and engage in sneakier tactics (Ep. 2, 01:17:04-:33).
Because the film’s whites are mostly kind and slavery is not so terrible, the Haitian Revolution becomes a war of choice. Suzanne, changed from a slave into a free person, opposes Toussaint’s desire to take up arms, seeing it as a vengeful inability to forgive slights. She begs him to leave “politics” alone and to “stop meddling in whites’ affairs” (Ep. 1, 30:00–:20). Acting as if overturning slavery was unnecessary, she complains, “I know your father was thrown in the water… [and] your sister was raped and assassinated, but….” As she struggles in vain to persuade Toussaint to return to growing sugar, she exclaims, “You have a wife, kids and land! Are you even thinking of us?” (Ep. 1, 43:42 – 43:54).
Another way in which the film makes the war seem unnecessary is that it omits Napoleon’s reestablishment of slavery in 1802. This brutal decree was enacted first on Guadeloupe, and news arrived quickly in Saint-Domingue; former slaves there justifiably feared that Leclerc’s forces had the same objective. Yet instead of making the battle against Leclerc into one for their very freedom, the film’s war results exclusively from Toussaint’s issuing an unnecessary constitution, despite the kindly white general Laveaux telling him it is a bad idea. Other than one massacre by Rochambeau mentioned in passing, French atrocities of the War of Independence are never seen or spoken of. Nowhere does the film suggest that the freedom-loving Napoleon or the principled Leclerc would have re-enslaved anyone.
The violence in the film is in fact almost entirely by blacks against whites. Whenever corpses are shown, they are the work of savage rebels. The only person we see lynched is a beautiful white woman, whose blond ringlets dangle from the tree. The religion of Vodou is depicted very pejoratively, as if it bore responsibility for slaves’ murderous behavior. Its strange ceremonies – in which priests yell “Kill the whites!” – are contrasted with peaceful Catholic ones. After the fury of the 1791 Bois-Caïman ceremony, in which worshippers dance, drink pigs’ blood, ask the lwas (spirits) to possess them, and swear an oath to exterminate les blancs, worshippers begin overrunning plantations and hacking whites to death (Ep. 1., 30:31 – 37:01). The film shows white generals eschewing violence, while racist mulattoes who hate blacks urge the French to attack them savagely. While French soldiers scrupulously obey the laws of war, black rebels ambush them and slash them to death with machetes (Ep. 1, 01:02:35 – 01:04:40; 01:05:47 – 01:06:20).
These are not the only flaws in the film’s portrayal of history. Another involves making mulattoes and blacks absolute enemies even though they often banded together against French atrocities. Furthermore, the Spanish are shown as inherently deceitful in contrast to the French; the film has Spanish General Hermona try to kill Louverture’s family, even though the real Hermona liked Toussaint. The film also hints that Louverture was himself responsible for the disasters that befell him, from his proposing to Suzanne at a funeral (which she warned could only bring unhappiness) to his stubbornness over the Constitution. Finally, the film portrays the Revolution from the top-down, as led by generals, while the enslaved masses who drove the Revolution hardly appear.
Interestingly, even with this sugarcoating of slavery, some French intellectuals thought the film was too hard on whites. Far from complaining that the film sanitized French whites, these critics thought it made them appear too racist. Gérard de Cortanze, an editor at Gallimard, complained that the film “distorted historical truth so that whites appear to be supporters of slavery and négrophobes.” He suggested that the youth of France’s suburbs would riot after watching it. Alain Foix, the writer of a popular biography of Toussaint, insisted that the movie should have included the French abolitionist priest Henri Grégoire to show that whites were not all bad. He alleged that the movie distorted history in suggesting that Haitians had fought against the French, and that whites had fought against blacks.
In the roundtable following the film, the scholars Marcel Dorigny and Françoise Vergès struggled to present a more realistic view of slavery and of slave resistance. Dorigny emphasized the long history of slave revolt on the island, and Vergès pointed out that “the first abolitionists were the slaves themselves.” However, the moderator was less interested in their comments than in asking the non-whites on the panel questions such as how it felt to go through life with black skin.
This film thus is better at displaying contemporary French ambivalence about slavery and the colonial past than it is in bringing Haiti’s history to life. Nevertheless, the Toussaint miniseries can still be a valuable tool in the classroom. In addition to helping students explore issues of historical memory with regard to slavery, it can also be used to spark discussions on how far historically-themed movies should stray from the truth. In the meanwhile, the Haitian Revolution still awaits a more faithful cinematic treatment.
Philippe Niang, Director, Toussaint Louverture, Color, 2012, 180 min., France, Eloa Prod, La Petite Reine, France Télévision.
- [“Danny Glover’s Slavery Film Lacked ‘White Heroes’, Producers Said,” July 24, 2008, AFP, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5i_e3UYOiNEhW03rcVTpcB2e15IMg]. On the film’s current status, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/18/danny-glover-good-cop.
- For more on my analysis of Burn! and of other cinematic depictions of slavery, see http://h-france.net/fffh/classics/les-caprices-dun-fleuve/.
- A film called Toussaint l’Ouverture is scheduled for release in 2014. Though it is being shot in Haiti, its writers and producers are Hollywood-based, and the director is Nigerian. It remains to be seen what perspective it will take. See http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/nigerian-director-jeta-amata-currently-shooting-15mill-toussaint-louverture-project-in-haiti, http://www.themoviesanctuary.com/sanctuary-by-kyra-pahlen.html and http://www.thebusinessoffilmdaily.com/Dailyeditioncannes2013/D2_S9.html.
- See Sepinwall, “Atlantic Amnesia: French Historians, the Haitian Revolution and the 2004-6 CAPES Exam,” in Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 34 (2006): 300-314, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wsfh/volumes.html (Long Beach); Sepinwall, “The Specter of Saint-Domingue: American and French Reactions to the Haitian Revolution,” The World of the Haitian Revolution, eds. Norman Fiering and David Geggus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 324-5; and also Yves Benot, La révolution française et la fin des colonies (Paris: La Découverte, 1987), ch. 10; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995); and Claudy Delné, “Le bâillonnement de la Révolution haïtienne dans l’imaginaire occidental à travers des textes fictionnels des dix-neuvième et vingtième siècles,” Ph.D. diss., French Dept., CUNY Graduate Center, 2013. On the flaws of French films in depicting slavery, see also Christopher L. Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
- See March 2000 speech at http://lesdiscours.vie-publique.fr/pdf/007000111.pdf and “La France a oublié Haïti,” in Le Monde, 17 February 2010, http://www.lemonde.fr/ameriques/article/2010/02/17/la-france-a-oublie-haiti_1307419_3222.html.
- See Sepinwall, “Teaching about Haiti in World History: An Introduction,” World History Connected 10, no. 2 (June 2013), http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/10.2/sepinwall.html; and Part I of Sepinwall, Haitian History: New Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2013).
- Claire Steinlen, “France 2. Toussaint Louverture, une icône,” in Le télégramme, February 12, 2012 (accessed through Lexis-Nexis); and http://222.hpnhaiti.com/site/index.php/hait-diaspora-trait-dunion/paris/5491-haiti-france-cinema-29-millions-de-telespectateurs-pour-le-telefilm-sur-qtoussaint-louvertureq.
- Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 292, 298.
- See Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004); Bell; and Michel Hector and Laënnec Hurbon, eds., Genèse de l’état haïtien (1804-1859) (Paris: Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2009).
- Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: un révolutionnaire noir d’Ancien Régime (Paris: Fayard, 1989); and Philippe R. Girard, The Slaves who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011), 9 and passim.
- For more on this point, see Sepinwall, Haitian History, 15; and depiction of mixed-race women in Pontecorvo’s Burn!
- See Muriel Frat, “Toussaint Louverture provoque une polémique,” Le figaro, February 15, 2012 (http://france2.tvmagv5.partner-tvmag.net/programme-tv/article/telefilm/67823/toussaint-louverture-provoque-une-polemique.html); and Ianis Mischi, “Trop de liberté tue Louverture,” L’Est républicain, February 18, 2012 (via Lexis-Nexis). On why factual errors are virtually unavoidable in historical dramas, see Robert A. Rosenstone, “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History Onto Film,” American Historical Review 93 (1998), no. 5: 1173-1185.
- The film can be contrasted with the 1983 film Sugar Cane Alley (Rue Cases-Nègres). Though that film is set in post-emancipation Martinique and does not depict the torturing of slaves, it is more unflinching in showing the hard labor involved in cane-cutting, which exhausts and dehumanizes those who have been unable to escape from the fields. PBS’s 2009 documentary Egalité for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution also includes interviews with scholars on the brutality of slavery and the physical agony produced by cane-cutting. Its historiographical narrative is not perfect (it tends to overemphasize Enlightenment origins of the Revolution), but clips can certainly be shown to students to bring to life various aspects of the Revolution. The British film, 12 Years a Slave (2013) offers a far more realistic view of slavery’s violence.
- See Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 34 – 38; Malick W. Ghachem, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Marcel Dorigny compare Saint-Domingue to other colonies. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sQWK4MUkYc).
- Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur (Paris: H. Plon, 1853-63), vol. 29 (no. 110, issue of January 9, 1799), p. 585bis; Daniel Desormeaux, “The First of the (Black) Memorialists,” Yale French Studies, no. 107 (2005): 131 – 145; and Deborah Jenson, Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), 48-9 and passim.
- On these issues, see chapters by Fick and John Thornton in Sepinwall, Haitian History; on the tendency of French writing on Saint-Domingue to ignore such topics (with a few exceptions).
- See Benot, La démence coloniale sous Napoléon (Paris: La Découverte, 1991); and Girard, 86 and passim.
- On these atrocities, see Benot and Girard.
- On the tendency in foreign writing to overemphasize Haitian revolutionaries’ violence while ignoring the violence of slavery, see Dubois, 5 and passim.
- Bell, 93.
- Quoted in Frat (see n. 12) and in http://www.guadeloupe.franceantilles.fr/loisirs/une-tv-mag/toussaint-louverture-telefilm-attendu-et-conteste-14-02-2012-158390.php.
- “Toussaint Louverture: un combat pour la liberté,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sQWK4MUkYc (comments at 11:10 and 14:08); and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfK1CUw8YQg (at 8:07)
This is the first objective critic of Toussaint Louverture’s movie I have ever read. It is well sounding when done by a Historian in the caliber of Sepinwall. It is worth sharing. The sanitization of slavery is not unique to T.Louverture’s film, most films on the subject fail to provide a full rendition of the horror of slavery. In ”Tropiques amers”, the violence is more or less portrayed, but displays the same flaws pointed out by Sepinwall on the representation of real events in fiction. The patterns are quite evident in these films: rewriting of history to make the past more bearable for a particular sector of the French elite that is still reluctant in exorcizing its past.. See the following link for Tropiques Amers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ItzUqhvkS0.
Thank you for your kind words and comment, and also for your own work on the way the Haitian Revolution is often hidden or sanitized. I will need to watch Tropiques Amers also – thank you for the link!
I don’t think that the main flaw of the film was that it didn’t depict the violence of slavery in St-Domingue, if it tried to it would have degenerated into a sadist’s wet dream. Toussaint was rather privileged since he held responsible posts in the system, first as coachman and veterinarian and after emancipation as a small scale entrepreneur who owned slaves. Given the man’s age (47-48) when he joined the slave revolt, the remarkable thing about him was the fact that he hadn’t made his peace with his environment. Harping on the brutality of the system would have detracted from the evolution of a great mind that went from small time operator within the system, with all the compromises such position entailed, to foremost fighter for the destruction of that system. The break with Biassou came about due to the latter’s penchant to sell blacks as slaves. The struggle with , Vaublan, Hedouville and Bonaparte stemmed from the fact that these gentlemen refused to take seriously the rights of blacks to be free, they imagined they could dangled freedom and yank it from blacks whenever they deemed it convenient. The great sin of this film was that it totally failed to depict that drama. The disappearance of Dessalines, the depiction of Moise as a drunk were shameful distortions. To sum it up, the Haitian revolution was depicted as a brainless business, fueled by people with exaggerated egos. Monsters, really. In my opinion, Toussaint’s main flaw was that he refused to see that the labor system that made St-Domingue rich was inimical to the freedom of his people. He should have listened to Moise and distributed the land to the tillers instead of having him shot on the trumped up charge of leading an insurrection against him.