January 15, 2010
In a lecture last semester at the Watson Institute, director Noland Walker discussed his recent work in the documentary Egalite for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution and addressed the issues of reconstructing history for public consumption. Professor Barrymore Bogues of Brown University’s Africana Studies Department contributed to the discussion by putting the revolution in historical context.
Walker throughout the talk reflected on the inherent difficulties of making a film in the genre of social history. The Haitian Revolution, which grew out of a slave revolt in 1791, led to the independence of the first country in the Latin American and Caribbean region from colonial rule. Due to the historic nature of the subject, the film required an assembly of archival images, recreation shooting, and expert interviews. Budget restrictions in many cases forced Walker to adjust the dimensions of the shooting. The crew could not afford to film on location in Haiti and shot the footage instead in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Walker therefore selected a cast composed primarily of Haitian actors in an effort to capture elements of Haitian culture. Most cast members were not actors by trade; their experience with local agriculture and industry heightened the realism of the film. Walker stressed the role of the director as an intermediary in these behind-the-scenes cultural exchanges in the filming process.
Professor Bogues complemented Walker’s discussion with additional information on the dynamics of the revolt and the biography of Touissant Louverture. The Revolution, Bogues determined, was not the product of any centralized movement but rather “thought itself out as it was proceeding.” The evolution of revolutionary ideologies is apparent in the Haitian Constitutions of 1801 and 1805. Bogues further characterized the revolt as a dual conflict against both slavery and French hegemony. The issue of race, however, entered into the discourse of power as a “political construction.” Articles 12-14 of the 1805 Constitution declared all Haitians to be black, with the exception of the Poles, Germans, and white women who had supported the uprising. The Haitian Revolution therefore should not be reduced to a singular race-based struggle between the black slaves and their white masters. Instead, one must recognize the influence of European social ideologies and situate the revolt within a framework of French intellectualism.
Bogues’ own engagement with the topic stems in part from his Caribbean heritage. Born in Jamaica, Bogues recalled the ethnic tension that characterized relations with the Haitian population. There was a general sentiment that “we should not be like Haiti”; Haitians were representative of a cultural “other.” Similar perspectives on the “failure” of Haiti still resonate in the region and were present in the filming of Walker’s documentary. Dominican crew members expressed some concern at working with the Haitian actors. An outsider himself, Walker had to mediate these ethnic clashes: it was “one of those moments when you recognize how American you really are.”
Throughout the talk, Walker reinforced the need to expose this narrative of Haitian independence to a larger audience. He was not, however, the first film maker to recognize the significance of these events. Danny Glover envisioned a dramatic interpretation of the Haitian Revolution starring Wesley Snipes as Louverture, but this effort was stymied when Hugo Chavez publicly sponsored the project. Despite Haiti’s recent economic and political destabilization, the country at one time symbolized universal liberty and social progress. “Haiti was the first black republic in the world, and they have been paying for it ever since.”
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Zak Leonard ‘10