Toussaint Louverture! Finally a Feature Film!
HSG from Black Spectrum Theater, South Jamaica, New York, 02-12-2012
To the New York premier of a feature film of the life and times of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It’s a three-hour (2 x 90 minutes) epic with elaborate costumes, settings, acting and scripting that shows all the €7m it cost to make and does more than justice to the scale and importance of the events – and man — it depicts. Directed by the Sengalese/French director Philippe Niang, the producers, France Zobda and Jean-Lou Monthieux from Martinique, attend the screening.
Made for French television, the film oozes as much historical accuracy and detail as is possible about such a period and about such a character, with years of detailed research and the diligent efforts of three scriptwriters all very evident. Toussaint, as slave, slave-owning planter, medic, guerrilla fighter, army general, statesman, diplomat, politician supreme, Governor and eventually prisoner, is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis, with a forceful, leading role for his spirited wife Suzanne Simon Baptiste, played by Aissa Maiga.
The film chronicles Toussaint joining Georges Biassou’s passionate yet dissolute rebellion in 1791, then supplanting him to forge a Haitian French Revolution, as Port-au-Prince in 1793, then Paris five months later, free all slaves. This seismic act has, of course, to be defended against the imperial, slaved-based economic ambitions of Spain and Britain as they go to war with France, not to mention anti-abolitionist factions within France itself.
The internal tensions of a Revolution, where the internal battle for direction amongst those who fought it was often as intense as the fighting against those who sought to put it down, are largely carried by Hyacinthe Moyse (Yann Ebonge), Toussaint’s adoptive nephew. Moyse goes to the firing squad shouting that Toussaint has forgotten who he once was, how the people live. Yet who he was, and what he needed to appear to be to friend and foe, as he navigated this sea of world history to secure his overriding aim, “general liberty for all men,” is the epic, if not the enigma, of his life.
Not a minute of a drum-tight script that must propel the narrative forward at the sort of breakneck speed Toussaint rode his hand-picked horses through Haiti’s mountains, is wasted. Everything takes place in Haiti, so the swirl of events in France, Spain and Britain, must intrude through foreigners. Representing France, we have leading roles for the revolutionary General Etienne Laveaux (Pierre Cassignard) and Commissioner Leger Sonthonax (Eric Viellard) who abolishes slavery in Haiti, is recalled to Paris, evades the guillotine and returns to Haiti to clash with Toussaint, as the remorseless logic of libete from the plantations for individuals moves inexorably towards libete for all from France.
On, and then off, Toussaint’s side, is the mulatto general, Andre Rigaud (Stany Coppet), who plays a key role in defeating the British. Hovering in the wings, emerging from the ranks to fulfill their eventual destiny are Toussaint’s key lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Hubert Kounde) and Henri Christophe (Thierry Desroses).
The grammar of the film is classic flashback. Dervis Pasquier (Arthur Jugnot), is the inquisitor of Napoleon’s lead inquisitor, General Caffarelli du Falga (Feodor Atkine), with a brief to find out where the captured Toussaint had hidden his personal fortune, supposedly “60 million in gold”. What the viewer gets is a cinematic version of the 75-page memoir and political testament Toussaint penned in captivity.
Toussaint is, at this point, “buried alive” in his words, in Fort de Joux, high in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border, in a cell, inside five concentric walls and three moats. The film opens with him being separated from his wife and two sons following his capture in Haiti in June 1802 and passage across the Atlantic, as he is transported through the snow in the eighteenth century equivalent of a prison van, a closed carriage.
Pasquier’s sessions with the aged, ailing Toussaint show him being steadily captivated by the principles and presence of the man, just as those same principles are being subverted in France by his captors. There is no treasure of course – and his captors’ inability to understand that a man of such prowess and power might have higher motives than personal acquisition – namely the basic principles of universal human rights a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Tom Paine (see blog entry for 11-11-2012) — is an underlying theme of the film. First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte is by now rapidly demolishing the Revolution’s principles and legacy, not least freedom for all.
Toussaint was captured by a French army under the Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Emmanuel LeClerc, sent to re-assert French control of an increasingly autonomous country and re-establish slavery. Within months of Toussaint’s death in April 1803 the remnants of his harried force would be defeated at Vertières by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Weeks later Haiti would declare its independence to the world, becoming the only state in the world to permanently free its people from slavery and itself from its colonial master simultaneously. The remorseless logic of the revolution and the games of the imperial powers relate the two: only the latter can guarantee the former.
In questions to the producers we did not get to any discussion of the threads running though Toussaint Louverture’s extraodinary life, most obviously his complete commitment to “general liberty for all men” from at least July 1792 onwards and his unequivocal belief that “only blacks could free blacks.” It is a line included in the film, but after 1795 as the counter-revolution in France gathers force and the British invade in large numbers, should probably run, “only blacks can guarantee the freedom of blacks.”
Sadly, we also did not touch on the obvious similarities of today: neo-colonial, if not colonial economic exploitation; dominance of the country’s economy and politics by foreign powers; their alliance with a tiny, Haitian elite whose power they have magnified to reinforce a vicious political-economic structure which denies basic rights to the vast majority.
Don’t worry. The film’s producers have promised to attend a premier of the film in London in 2013 – if we organise it. We are coordinating our schedules to find a date. Get your questions ready. Meantime, you can watch clips, in French at: