As UWI film lecturer Chris Meir remarked before the screening of the two-part feature Toussaint L’Ouverture at the UWI Institute of Critical Thinking last Friday, “It’s fitting a Caribbean film festival should begin with this movie about one of the region’s most famous sons.” Meir’s sentiments are shared by many, even if it might be more apposite to refer to Toussaint as one of the region’s founding fathers. Possibly no other Caribbean narrative has exercised the projections of filmmakers like Toussaint’s. Son of an African prince, born into slavery in Saint Domingue, in middle age Toussaint propelled himself from his position as coach driver on the Breda plantation to leader of the Haitian Revolution. A brilliant strategist, between 1793 and 1802 he defeated the best of Europe’s military, not only the French but Spanish and English armies too, securing Haitian independence, even though he died a prisoner in exile. These bare biographic details are only the structure on which hang many of the debates and dramas of modern world history, as CLR James noted in his Black Jacobins, the first Caribbean reading of the Haitian Revolution. Some of the major discourses Toussaint’s life path traversed are: the equality of human rights; Enlightenment Rationalism and Individualism’s clash with other worldviews—“progress against darkness,” “civilisation against barbarism;” the moral bankruptcy of capitalism; the pseudo-science of racism and very real racial hatred.
If we add a saga of guerrilla warfare, a cast of characters ranging from Vodou oungans and lwa, to the radically different trio Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe, wives and children, the various French Revolutionary factions, with Napoleon Bonaparte lurking in the wings while his sister frolics mainstage, we begin to see some of the challenges of bringing all or even some of this to the screen. This first film opts for personal drama rather than epic sweep, with few battle scenes but many intense moments between characters. Significantly, the opening scene is set in snow-bound Europe, with a captive Toussaint (played by leading Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis, who’s much better looking than his historical prototype) being separated from wife Suzanne and sons Placide and Isaac, en route for a dungeon cell in Fort Joux high in the Jura Mountains (as far from the sea as possible to prevent any possibility of escape). The balance of the two-part narrative follows in flashbacks: Tousssaint being interrogated by a young (fictitious) officer Pasquier, rather than the (historically factual) hard-bitten old soldier General Cafarelli, and recounting his life story. It’s unfortunate that our first (and last) sight of Toussaint is as a captive, a victim, a flawed tragic hero. It’s as though our vision of Toussaint is constrained by Eurocentric gatekeepers of history.
While it’s true that the victors always write their version of history, to view Toussaint’s capture and lonely death as defeat, is surely to misconceive his life. When boarding L’Heros, which would take him into exile, Toussaint prophetically declared: “In overthrowing me you have only cut the trunk of the tree of liberty of the blacks of Saint Domingue: it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” In less than two years Jean-Jacques Dessalines had ripped the white from the French tricolour and declared an independent Haiti. How can we then distort history and read Haitian independence as anything other than victory? Deconstructing this approach, it bears striking resemblance to a thread of historiography which has consistently demonised Haiti since Toussaint’s days and which was expressed as recently as the earthquake of 2010, when American pastors glossed this horrendous natural disaster as divine punishment. Director Phillipe Niang must be credited with a successful”‘period movie,” with box-office or Hollywood leanings—funding is hard to come by for projects like these which run counter to still-dominant narratives. The costuming looks accurate, although it’s unlikely that Haitian women slaves of the time would have dressed quite as elegantly as their masters’ wives. Similarly, some liberties are taken with historical fact. Even if Toussaint was present at the Bois Caiman Petro Vodou ceremony on August 14, 1791 (and there’s no corroborating documentation) which is still viewed by Haitians as the touchstone of the insurrection which led to the War of Independence, there’s no evidence to support the old mambo’s gift of Boukman’s “rosary’”to Toussaint. This is a convenient symbolic narrative marker.
Although other characters refer to Toussaint as “Legba”—the gatekeeper to the spirit world in the Vodou pantheon (a name reflected in the one he gave himself—”the opener’)—apart from the Bois Caiman ceremony there are very few other references to Vodou. This seems to be a glaring anomaly unless one remembers the Eurocentric approach and recalls that Vodou is still relegated to the parodic horror genre when brought to the screen. Yet whatever Toussaint’s personal take (by descent he was an Arada, the Dahomeyan tribe responsible for bringing Vodou to Saint Domingue) on a Creole worldview being forged as he lived, Toussaint would have dealt with Vodou as a fact of life, then as much as it is now. If the worldview which informs Haitian reality is conspicuous by its absence, so then is the Haitian landscape, which played a central role in Toussaint’s career as military strategist. Even if the budget did not allow for some of the swashbuckling battle scenes, ambushes, impossible rides, the mountains and ravines, the burning plains of sugar cane all shaped Toussaint’s story.
Toussaint L’Ouverture (Parts one and two) will be screened on Saturday at Movietowne, Port-of-Spain from 1 pm.