If the Tree of Black Liberty Grows on Haitian Soil, Why Do Its Fruits Fall on Hollywood Ground?

Let’s take a moment to thank Haiti for Toussaint Louverture, without whom America wouldn’t have been able to watch Django Unchained. Two days ago, I attended a screening at the New York African Film Festival and watched the (ironically) French-produced biopic of Toussaint Louverture, a cinematographic masterpiece that you probably never heard of, by director Philippe Niang, starring Jimmy Jean-Louis as the relentless, determined Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution, who in real life shook the institution of slavery to the core by successfully putting an end to slavery in a land owned by the French and paved the way for it to become the first black, free state in 1804.

What do Toussaint and Django have in common? Both of their stories take place in the nineteenth century. Both rebel against a white supremacist system that oppresses their community and succeed in overthrowing it for a while. Finally and sadly, both their fates remain at the hands of the white supremacist after their rebellion. What in fact, if you’ve ever wondered, happens to Django after he and Broomhilda settle in the house of the master in the South? Do they get to live happily ever after? Or do they flee, knowing that the friends of Master will come around and have them end up like Nat Turner, hanged, flayed and dismembered?

Toussaint Louverture encounters that kind of fate; though physically less overbearing, it is symbolically just as humiliating. The beacon of Black freedom ends up tricked into exile and dies alone in a French fort, unable to witness the fruits of his labor on Haitian soil; which brings me back to the reason why I’m thanking Haiti for Toussaint who brought us Django, a movie that was nominated 5 times at the Oscars and was released on the same year as the biopic of a true legend, a defender of civil rights whose life deserves more recognition in the pages (or lens) of history today, but is not.

Django Unchained itself is a beautiful movie, one I think David Foster Wallace would call “entertaining.” It’s a colorful, cathartic, certainly revisionist story of a black man who with the help of a white man realizes a fantasy: slaying hundreds of white men who are experts in the business of killing and torturing black people. At the end, the black man wins against this system without a scratch. It makes for explosive entertainment but let’s not forget the words of a famous Martiniquan poet:

“beware of crossing your arms in the sterile attitude of the spectator, because life is not a spectacle, because a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, because a man who screams is not a dancing bear.”

Doesn’t Django Unchained remind you of Aaron Mcgruder’s “The Story of Catcher Freeman”, a cartoon released in July of 2008, depicting the exact same adventures of Django, except in anime? Look at the first minute of this video and you’ll understand:

It’s uncanny, isn’t it? And isn’t it odd that Toussaint Louverture’s last name means “The opening, something opened”, suggesting freedom, while Django (the d is silent) is “Unchained”? It’s not just a coincidence. Screenwriters remain writers after all, and all writers have to find their inspiration somewhere. I argue that Quentin Tarantino found his in some aspects of Toussaint Louverture’s story, has probably worked out an agreement with Aaron McGruder’s company, and of course knew every detail of Nat Turner’s rebellion movement before giving America an “original” chef-d’oeuvre that is conscience-freeing and that Hollywood could only extol.

In the meantime, Toussaint Louverture the movie, while receiving a lot of viewers when it first aired on a French channel (3 million), almost exclusively received support and recognition from the Afro-Caribbean cinema communities. It won awards at the Pan African Film and Arts Festivals, at the Africa Movie Academic Awards, and most recently was screened at the New York African Film Festival. Unfortunately, almost no one knows of this movie in the United States. In America where black people are constantly bullied through the moving image – where successful movies, TV shows or music about black people are the ones that rely on stereotypes – a change needs to occur to support more positive and accurate portrayals of Black civilizations and cultures. This support should not only emerge from the diaspora but other festivals and award ceremonies, ones where awards are determined by merit, not just politics or commercial success.

Jimmy Jeans-Louis at the New York African Film Festival projection of "Toussaint Louverture"; April 7th, 2013.

Jimmy Jeans-Louis at the New York African Film Festival projection of "Toussaint Louverture"; April 7th, 2013.

Just yesterday, I wrote an article denouncing the dangers of “corporate-sponsored culture” as Bob Dylan calls it, and though I feel bad for putting Django Unchained in such a negative limelight (I sincerely respect the actors in that movie and I adore Kerry Washington), I am honestly tired of the re-appropriation and re-visitation of Black history in the world of cinema in a way that trivializes the hardships and horrors of slavery. I’m even more revolted that movies like Toussaint Louverture, which depicts a brave and true story of Black success in the nineteenth century, aren’t deserving of more prizes and recognition. This cripples the drive of Black artists and writers.

However, having watched both movies and as a young African author, I write this piece with the hope that my generation – regardless of our race or social and financial background – has a mentality that differs from the ones past and that we will work for change and equality through the arts, so that Toussaint’s words as he left for France were not said in vain:

“In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of […] black liberty […]. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”

Aminata Diop

Special Contributor at 50 Shades of Black; Editor and Founder at Tamaji Magazine