Philippe Diang's Toussaint Louverture |
The 3 Generals
When I ran into Danny Glover leaving the repast at Immamu Amiri
Baraka's funeral in Newark this January, I asked him as he raced up the
stairs about his film Toussaint Louverture
and until this moment
thought French-Senegalese director Philippe Niang's film was that film.
It is not. I wonder what Glover thinks of it? His production company
Films--kind of fitting that there be a film, right? I read on Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora,
that in 2006 Glover received "$18 million from one of Glover's heroes, the [late] Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez."
He assembled an all-star cast yet once again was foiled. The film has been percolating for 30 years. For the full story read: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/danny-glovers-toussaint-louverture-film-that-never-was-but-could-still-be
this was not the highly anticipated and long awaited treatment, I was
happy to see a work on the celebrated General L'Overture opening night at the 12th
Annual Oakland International Film Festival
, Thursday, April 3, 2014 at
the Grand Lake Theatre. The film is courtesy of the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles which has screened Diang's film two years consecutively according to Mr. David Roach, director of OIFF whom I spoke to this morning: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2014/04/04/wandas-picks-radio-show-jazz-heroes-awardee-ms-faye-carol
The house was full for this wonderful
epic film about the first successful enslaved African uprising. Focusing
on Toussaint L'Overture's shrewd mind, excellent military strategy and
his ability to be both inclusive and fair, the film also looked at his
family--he and his little sister and their early trauma indicative of
the peculiar institution, slavery
--loss of parents, rape and the institutionalized or normalized brutality the brother and sister survived yet never quite got over. For more on the
director see: http://www.africanfilmny.org/2013/philippe-niang/
Philippe Diang's Toussaint Louverture, who was born into slavery,
became a General in the French army and even defied Napoleon's power by
making his homeland, Haiti, the first independent Black State in the
world, an abolitionist State. In three hours, the director, draws a
breathtaking historical epic which perfectly translates the complex
personally of the hero of Haitian independence and of the liberation of
Black peoples (OIFF
L'Overture's handling of the white generals, first the French, then the
Spanish and then the French again--and the grudging respect he earned
is certainly a highlight of the film and reminded me of our own
President Barack Hussain Obama and his handling of the white power
structure and the painful compromises one might miss unless she were
not paying close attention to the story as it unfolds.
|Philippe Diang's Toussaint Louverture: |
In the film, Toussaint is surrounded
by enemies. He is often questioned by blacks about his allegiance and
why he doesn't just kill all the whites. Kidnapped and imprisoned in a
dank damp cell in the cold snow covered mountains in France--we watch
the general's, still regal in bearing, health deteriorate as the jailers
tried to find out where a reported chest filled with gold is buried.
Reminiscent of the 1001 Nights-
-Toussaint tells his story to a young scribe employed to break the general's spirit.
charge, even when stripped of his uniform and given mite infested
garments to wear, deprived of food, firewood and then his sole
companion--his former personal secretary, Louverture's
|Toussaint L'Overture with The Ancestors|
film shows men of honor, none more stellar, though not perfect, than
Toussaint L'Overture. I see why artist Jacob Lawrence painted series
after series depicting L'Overture's legacy.
I loved the
interaction between the three generals: Toussaint, Dessalines and
Christophe--they were all very different--Toussaint the diplomat. He
appealed to what he thought were the human sentiments of the French and
then the Spanish for freedom and human rights for the enslaved Africans,
but the colonizers were only interested in profiting from the free labor and
fruits of this tropical paradise, Santo Domingue.
|JACOB LAWRENCE (1917–2000) |
The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture
|JACOB LAWRENCE (1917–2000) Toussaint Series|
was underestimated over and over again by white men, who could not
believe he could out think them, even after he did again and again. In a
great scene, one general is sitting on the hill speaking to another
about how incompetent Africans are at military strategy as their men are
killed in an ambush by Toussaint's soldiers.
This general is not
rash and proved a great foil for Jean Jacques Dessalines who had a short
fuse which needed only a spark to engulf the guilty in flames.
|Jimmy Jean-Louis as Toussaint Louverture|
Ilove in the early part of the film how Toussaint was awakened to his
circumstances when he learned to read and why he cared about the white
man who bought he and his sister. He grew up favored and close to those
who owned him. When we meet him he is a well-adjusted slave, happy with
his lot since he knows nothing else.It is his owner's Jesuit brother who
suggests to his brother that he free his enslaved Africans, to which his
|Jimmy Jean-Louis as title character |
In this retelling of the story,
we get a glimpse into L'Overure's life, especially that between he and
his beloved wife, Suzanne. He falls madly in love with this beautiful
free black women who has a son by a white man; he feels she is worth his
pursuit and together they represent love's endurance in barren space.
He loved his children too and his people. The film is full of Toussaint
wittisms--like one he tells his master's sister--I am a black man before
I am French.
Funny how the propaganda machine is in operation
then as it is now and when Toussaint is questioned by the scribe about
the rumors of his infidelity and multiple children out of wedlock he
speaks to this maligning of his name as false.
hadn't known Toussaint was a healer, and that he initially joined the
resistance movement as a medic who utilized herbs to heal the wounded
African soldiers in their military camp. The film is full of stories of
double-crossings and mended and severed alliances across racial lines.
At one point the blacks were against the whites, the whites against the
blacks and the creoles against the blacks too. Toussaint set out to mend
his community, which included the colonizers.He is highly criticized
when he brings the colonizers back to run the industries, Africans (he
feels) lack the operational knowledge of. This Toussaint owns slaves
too, which he "treats well," he says to critics.
stood at his community's moral center, yet he was a man of his times.
In the film, the character does not always like the decisions he
feels compelled to make, but knowing that sometimes he had to punish
by people he loved. He was ruler and Napoleon did not like this and set
out to put this Negro in his place. Toussaint told one of his men that
he wasn't taking orders from anyone.
I am not a scholar of the
period or this man's history, so without a chance to speak to the
director, I cannot say what was artistic license, and what is factual
outside the historic moments already mentioned which are easily
verified. See http://library.brown.edu/haitihistory/5.html
Did Toussaint's two sons study in France on a generous scholarship? And when an officer arrives in Saint-Dominque without an army to bring order, an order resisted by the deposed colonists, he is married to a black woman, light complexioned, but black nonetheless; is this another instance of poetic license?
I kept thinking I was seeing a reversal of the colorblind casting (smile) when the attaché
speaks to what is before my eyes. He asks his black wife, who seems to be in a perpetual state of displeasure, why she married him. She responds to get out of France and he brings her to this "godforsaken tropical island at war."
The acting is superb, as is the cinematography -- the beautiful range of blackness on
screen--midnight black to ebony, to vanilla chocolate. With the already mentioned Jimmy Jean-Louis as the title character, Toussaint L'Overture, Aïssa Maïga (Paris, Je T'Aime, Bamako) as Toussaint's wife, Suzanne, and Sonia Rolland (Moloch Tropical, Midnight In Paris) as Marie-Eugénie Sonthonax, wife of abolitionist L.F. Sonthonax the cast and director are representative of Pan African culture.
It is a perfect Oakland International Film Festival choice.
historic reenactments of pivotal moments in Haitian history like the
meeting with Boukman and Mame Fatiman at the Bois Caïman ceremony on the mountain show Toussaint
as an observer--Catholic, he also believed in African gods and their
power to protect. Papa Legba was his guardian and the film hinges on
this element and the what one considers a "treasure." Money or gold was not what Toussaint coveted, if anything it was his passion for liberty for his people.
The film is not a documentary, yet, the work is certainly thought-provoking and in the tradition of other slave or formerly enslaved African narratives such as Sojourner Truth's and Prophet Nat Turner's. In both examples the vehicle is transformed in the process of dictation or receipt of such a trust, such a truth.
L'Overture says he is also called to the work by God, and like Nat Turner, in Diang's film, this document was also his last testament.
For more information about the Oakland International Film Festival this weekend, April 3-7, 2014, visit www.filmoakland
.com or call (510) 238-4734.