Film Review: Toussant Louverture

Every once in a while a stand up and cheer movie comes along that sweeps audiences off of their feet.  Toussaint Louverture is one of these breathtaking movies.  This two-part, three hour-plus saga about the leader of the Haitian liberation struggle is in the same league, and has the epic sweep of classic biopics, such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Warren Beatty’s Reds, Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as well as the recent feature about another Western Hemisphere leader, Lula, The Son of Brazil.

Toussaint Louverture is also what the venerable Pan African Film and Arts Festival is also all about: Breaking the motion picture industry’s color barrier with Black-themed studio and indie features, shorts, documentaries and other arts from around the world.  This filmfest, which coincides with Black History Month, is America’s top Black movie venue and a leading U.S. showcase for independent, student, political and progressive pictures, from the ’hood to Mother Africa to the Black Diaspora scattered throughout the globe.  A top venue for World Cinema, PAFF has screened films from Australia about Aborigines, New Zealand movies about Maoris, and other South Pacific pictures, plus Caribbean productions that previously included a biopic about Frantz Fanon (author of The Wretched of the Earth), Cuban pics and 2006’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, South Africa’s Tsotsi.

This is the 20th annual PAFF, and a cause for rejoicing, because there are few – if any – other venues in Los Angeles, the capital of the film industry, where groundbreaking movies like Toussaint Louverture could be released.  Indeed, PAFF is presenting the U.S. premiere of this
2012 made for TV movie produced by French television — arguably the BEST film I’ve ever seen at PAFF, which I’ve been covering for more than a decade.

In a sense, Toussaint Louverture has been long in the making.  By the 1930s, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who made revolutionary classics such as 1925’s Battleship Potemkin, was interested in making a film called Black Majesty featuring Toussaint’s co-leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, which is outlined in Vladimir Nizhny’s book Lessons With Eisenstein.  Eisenstein had wanted the indomitable Paul Robeson to play Dessalines (or one of his comrades) – can you imagine how electrifying this work would have been?  In any case, it was not to be.

Nor (so far!) has Danny Glover’s projected movie about the Haitian Revolution, which was supposed to be a collaboration with the film industry of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.  (To read Glover’s explanation re: why the picture has not been made yet read my interview with the actor/activist in the upcoming issue of The Progressive Magazine.)  Toussaint has been depicted in a handful of short, documentary and feature films, notably in director Jean Negulesco’s 1952 Haitian Revolution drama Lydia Bailey, starring Anne Francis and Dale Robertson, with Trinidad-born Ken Renard (a big and little screen veteran who appeared in the South Seas set TV series Adventures in Paradise and with John Wayne in 1969’s True Grit) as Toussaint.  The Haitian Revolution also inspired Gillo Pontecorvo’s (Battle of Algiers) classic about Third World liberation struggles called Burn! (which was set in a fictional Caribbean isle named Queimada).  Marlon Brando told Larry King Burn! was the most important movie he’d ever acted in.

In any case, French TV director/co-writer Philippe Niang finally pulled it off with the action packed Toussaint Louverture.  This made for TV movie looks great – it has lush production values and superb period costumes, which enhance its ambiance of authenticity.  It was not shot at the actual prison where Toussaint was held (which I coincidentally visited last August at Le Doubs) but in the south of France, while the Caribbean sequences were lensed at Martinique.  The film’s trajectory as it follows the title character’s revolutionary evolution from slave to the “New Spartacus,” general and governor of the “world’s first Black republic,” as Haiti is called, has the ring of truth.  Haitians at the PAFF premiere told me it was “90% accurate.”  The politics are also sharp and complex, full of contradictions, political infighting and faction fights.  The cause also, alas, took its toll on Toussaint’s private life and family, especially on his wife Suzanne (Malian/Gambian actress Aïssa Maïga of 2006’s Bamako).

But Toussaint comes across at all times as an extraordinary, dignified individual – the real deal, who is at the same time made of flesh and blood: No statue is he.  This is in no small measure because Haiti-born actor Jimmy Jean-Louis stars in the title role.  He is stellar, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance that required great presence as well as acting skill, as Toussaint ages during this biopic that spans his tumultuous yet glorious life. Jean-Louis previously appeared in movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, and played the male leads in The Diary of a Tired Black Man and Phat Girlz opposite Mo’nique.  Toussaint’s comrades are portrayed by Thierry Desroses as Christophe and Hubert Kounde as Dessalines, with Stany Coppet as the “mulatto” General Rigaud.  (Coppet and Jean-Louis attended PAFF’s standing room only premiere.)

My Hollywood Progressive publisher Sharon Kyle recently emailed me a “list of movies about race relations that invariably place white people at the center, usually as the savior – To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning, A Time To Kill, The Help, Invictus, The Blind Side, A Dry White Season, Cry Freedom, Ghosts of Mississippi, Armistad, Dangerous Minds, Glory, Crash.”  There has been a similar trend vis-à-vis Hollywood’s Holocaust films, with German – and even Nazi – characters leading the way in saving the Jews, most notably Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.  But as with the Daniel Craig fact-based 2008 feature Defiance about the anti-fascist Jewish resistance, Toussaint Louverture is a magnificent movie wherein the wretched of the Earth stand up for and free themselves.  At last, here is a movie  worthy of those brave beloved Black Jacobins, who defeated Napoleon and terrified America’s slaveholders.  Don’t miss one of the best films I’ve seen in years.  BRAVO!!!

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