(The Root) — The Haitian Revolution lasted 13 years before the nation, known then as Saint-Domingue, gained independence from France and became the world's first free black republic. It actually took two declarations to achieve that historic marker: Toussaint L'Ouverture led the island slave revolt to a short-lived victory over British and Spanish colonizers in 1801. By 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines had succeeded him and defeated French forces; he was the country's first president.
For years, many in Hollywood have tried to make a dramatized version of the revolution and its iconic leader, L'Ouverture. None succeeded until Toussaint, a two-part television series that averaged 3 million viewers when it aired in February on the French network France 2. Directed by Philippe Niang, produced by Eloa Prod and starring Jimmy Jean-Louis as the title character, the film was shot in France and Martinique.
Since its premiere, Toussaint has been racking up awards. It won best narrative feature at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles, where Jean-Louis also came away with the award for best actor. In addition, the film won best Diaspora feature at the Africa Movie Academy Awards, which is considered the African Oscars. (According to Jean-Louis, several other domestic film-festival organizers have inquired about screening Toussaint, but there were no specific details at press time.)
The Root recently caught up with Jean-Louis, who talked about the cultural significance of the film and the potential impact it can have for Haitians and just about anyone who appreciates history's defining moments.
The Root: Toussaint is such a larger-than-life figure. Did you feel any pressure playing him?
JJL: I felt pressure all the time. First of all, it is Toussaint L'Ouverture. It is a movie that everybody has been talking about for many, many, many years. I am Haitian and I've been holding up the Haitian flag for many years.
You have all these things that are on your shoulders and remind you that you'd better do the best possible job. People are going to judge, people are going to be looking at you. They are going to point fingers, so you'd better be good. I was extremely aware of that. It's hard; you're playing the man who liberated the first black republic. That itself speaks loudly.
TR: The film gives you a glimpse of Toussaint's relationship with other famous Haitian leaders, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Each of them had different perspectives about the revolution and liberation. Can you talk about Toussaint's perspective and what he was trying to do?
JJL: He was a visionary compared to Dessalines, for example, who wanted complete vengeance for what happened to his people. Toussaint had the kind of vision that allowed him to deal with the situation very differently. All he wanted was to be at the same level as the colonizers. He was really for equality, peace … complete freedom.
But really, he knew he needed the French in the country because they knew how to keep the country going. That's why he didn't want to kill them. He made hard decisions. It's normal; when you're a man of power, you will make decisions that will sometimes hurt yourself or your own people. But at the same time … he had to be clever to free the country.
TR: There have been many attempts to make a film like this. Why do you think this one got made?
JJL: Essentially, it's not a movie about a Haitian hero or a black hero per se. It's just a human story. French television understood that it was a good project to do. That it would be good for their audience even though the conflict is between France and Haiti. By the end of the movie, you're just amazed by the life of this man. It's completely universal.
TR: You've been someone who has supported Haiti both before and after the earthquake. What do you think a project like this can do for Haiti?
JJL: Because of all the negative publicity Haiti has had, it completely overshadows what Haiti has done. So if people, especially Haitian people, become aware of the film, it's going to boost them a little bit. Toussaint was such an inspiration that if most Haitians who know the story can see this kind of movie, it will change their mentality so people can work together for a better Haiti. And of course for the non-Haitians, it's a good piece for the image of Haiti.
It's the kind of movie that can be played every first of January, which is Haitian Independence Day. The Haitian government wants to help us do screenings in Haiti. This is something that I really hope will happen: that we not only take it to the elite but also into the tent cities, to the different cities of Haiti that don't have movie theaters, so everyone has a chance to see it. And I would want to be there as well to introduce the movie, to speak with the people, to engage them. And it shouldn't be just for Haitians. It's a movie that should be seen by the masses.
Ella Turenne is a Los Angeles-based artist, activist and educator. She is currently assistant dean for community engagement at Occidental College. Follow her on Twitter.