Toussaint Louverture (Jimmy Jean-Louis) in Toussaint Louverture.
By Ed Rampell
Every once in a while a movie comes along that sweeps audiences off of their feet. Toussaint Louverture is one of these breathtaking movies. This two-part, three hour-plus saga about the leader of the Haitian liberation struggle, Toussaint Louverture (Jimmy Jean-Louis) is in the same league, and has the epic sweep of classic biopics, such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Warren Beatty’s Reds, Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as well as the recent feature about another Western Hemisphere leader, Lula, The Son of Brazil.
In a sense, Toussaint Louverture has been long in the making. By the 1930s, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who made revolutionary classics such as 1925’s Battleship Potemkin, was interested in making a film called Black Majesty featuring Toussaint’s co-leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, which is outlined in Vladimir Nizhny’s book Lessons With Eisenstein. Eisenstein had wanted the indomitable Paul Robeson to play Dessalines (or one of his comrades) -- can you imagine how electrifying this work would have been? In any case, it was not to be.
Nor (so far!) has Danny Glover’s projected movie about the Haitian Revolution, which was supposed to be a collaboration with the film industry of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Toussaint has been depicted in a handful of short, documentary and feature films, notably in director Jean Negulesco’s 1952 Haitian Revolution drama Lydia Bailey, starring Anne Francis and Dale Robertson, with Trinidad-born Ken Renard (a big and little screen veteran who appeared in the South Seas set TV series Adventures in Paradise and with John Wayne in 1969’s True Grit) as Toussaint. The Haitian Revolution also inspired Gillo Pontecorvo’s (Battle of Algiers) classic about Third World liberation struggles called Burn! (Marlon Brando once told Larry King Burn! was the most important movie he’d ever acted in).
In any case, French TV director/co-writer Philippe Niang finally pulled it off with the action packed Toussaint Louverture. This made-for-TV movie looks great. It has lush production values and superb period costumes, which enhance its ambiance of authenticity. It was not shot at the actual prison where Toussaint was held (which I coincidentally visited last August at Le Doubs) but in the south of France, while the Caribbean sequences were lensed at Martinique. The film’s trajectory as it follows the title character’s revolutionary evolution from slave to the “New Spartacus,” general and governor of the “world’s first Black republic,” as Haiti is called, has the ring of truth. Haitians at the PAFF premiere told me it was “90 percent accurate.” The politics are also sharp and complex, full of contradictions, political infighting and faction fights. The cause also, alas, took its toll on Toussaint’s private life and family, especially on his wife Suzanne (Aïssa Maïga).
But Toussaint comes across at all times as an extraordinary, dignified individual -- the real deal, who is at the same time made of flesh and blood: No statue is he. This is in no small measure because Haiti-born actor Jean-Louis stars in the title role. He is stellar, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance that required great presence as well as acting skill, as Toussaint ages during this biopic that spans his tumultuous yet glorious life.