Louverture was a freed slave, an abolitionist, and a onetime slave-owning plantation
master. He led an epic life dramatized in
all its messy glory throughout Philippe Niang’s two part French miniseries, Toussaint Louverture (trailer here), which screens in
its entirety as the centerpiece selection of the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.
in flashbacks, viewers know right from the start Napoleon will eventually have
his fill of Louverture, consigning him to prison, where his lackeys interrogate
the Haitian general for the whereabouts of an apocryphal buried treasure. In a way, Louverture was lucky to be
there. Having watched a cruel slaver
murder his father, the young Louverture would have been next had Bayon, a more
humane plantation holder, not interceded (evidently, this scene involves some
dramatic license, but so be it). Recognizing
the boy’s talents, Bayon somewhat reluctantly teaches Louverture to read and
even grants him his freedom as a young man.
The evolving, cliché-defying relationship between the two men is one of
the strongest elements of the bio-drama.
Louverture takes arms, but again it is complicated. Serving as an officer first for the Spanish
and then the French, Louverture fought against every European power in Haiti at
one time or another. Although he is an
abolitionist, Louverture strives to maintain strategic ties to the colonial
landlords. The Louverture Niang shows the
audience is not a class warrior. He
wants to keep their capital in Haiti—he just doesn’t want to be considered part
of it. However, this inevitably brings
conflict with hotter heads intent on score-settling.
the tragedy of Niang’s Louverture is
the way cynical white, black, and mulatto Haitians exploit racial resentment to
further their power games. It is also
fascinating to see how the chaos of the French Revolution shaped events a hemisphere
away. However, given Louverture’s
reputation as one of history’s great revolutionaries, many viewers will be
surprised there are no battle scenes in Niang’s production, just the
anticipation and consequences of armed conflict.
of a throwback to the epic historical minis of the 1980’s, Louverture is sweeping, melodramatic, and ennobling in a very satisfying
way. As one might expect, Jimmy
Jean-Louis’s dynamic lead performance is the key. He is suitably intense, without allowing
Louverture to degenerate into a fire-breathing revolutionary stereotype. Likewise, Philippe Caroit genuinely humanizes
the French old guard as the decidedly un-Legree-ish Bayon.
French television veteran, Niang’s tele-movie Prohibited Love (which screened at the 2010 ADIFF) also dealt with
racial themes pointedly, but without wallowing in didacticism. Louverture
is even better. In fact, it should
appeal to audiences across the ideology spectrum, aside from any odd remaining
Bonapartists out there. Appealingly old
fashioned, Toussaint Louverture is a well
produced period drama, recommended for history buffs and Francophone audiences
when it screens next Saturday and Sunday (12/1 and 12/2) as the centerpiece of
this year’s ADIFF.
Labels: ADIFF '12, French Cinema, Toussaint Louverture