Friday, April 04, 2014

Oakland International Film Festival Opens with film about Haitian General Toussaint L'Overture

Director Philippe Diang'
Director 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 is Louverture 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:

Although 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:

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:

Director 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 Program notes).  
Director Philippe Diang

General 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:
The family
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.

In 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 spirit reigns.

Toussaint L'Overture with The Ancestors
Diang's 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
Toussaint 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 brother scoffs.
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.

I 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.

Toussaint 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 wrongdoing committed 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

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.

The 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 or call (510) 238-4734.


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