Book Review: ‘Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games’

A review by Danny Shaw for Toward Freedom.

Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021)

Chris Rock’s 2014 film “Top Five” is a scathing critique of Hollywood and its sometimes open, sometimes underhanded censorship of critical movies. Rock’s character, “Andre Allen,” emerges as a movie star because of his role as the ridiculous, crime fighting “Hammy the Bear.” Resentful of being known for only this goofy role, Allen produces a film called “Uprize,” playing the role of the Haitian rebel vodou priest, Dutty Boukman. However, “Top Five” grossed $25 million, while the animated film, “Madagascar,” in which Chris Rock played “Marty the Zebra,” netted $200 million. This shows the powers that be have no interest in amplifying the message of arguably the single most important event of the 19th century: The enslaved can rebel and they can win!

“Top Five” was used as an example in the recently published book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games. In it, historian Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall explores how the 1804 Haitian Revolution has been misrepresented and censored on screen. 

Poster for 2013 film "Tula: The Revolt"

For example, funding was blocked for an epic film, “Tula: The Revolt,” which highlighted the mass revolt and its forward-thinking leadership, namely Toussaint L’ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe, Sanite Bélair and Capois La Mort. Starring actor Danny Glover, the film sought to answer the question: “Why has this monumental achievement been so erased from our history and from our consciousness?” Sepinwall writes the film aimed to suggest “enslaved people were capable of formulating their own resistance plans” (p. 53). However, Glover was unsuccessful in raising funds to produce the film at the level other Hollywood films have been produced.

It is here that Karl Marx’s 1848 quote-turned-maxim is more relevant than any other: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Beyond a Great White Hope

Sepinwall contrasts the different historiographies that guided both mainstream, underground, and unfinished and unfunded films. 

Poster for 1948 film "Lydia Bailey"

McCarthyism acted to dilute producers’ ability to convey a new image of Haiti and Black leadership in the 1948 film, “Lydia Bailey.” After years of censorship as well as calling key actors and producers, such as Michael Blankfort and William Marshall, to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the film became a shadow of its former self when it finally hit the screen.

Poster for 1933 film "Emperor Jones"

Paul Robeson’s role in “Emperor Jones” (1933) is severely curtailed by racism, causing one African-American critic to call Eugene O’Neill’s play “a travesty of the Negro race” (p. 29). 

A major thread in this book is Hollywood’s insistence on having a “great white hope” character who paternalistically shows the enslaved how to fight. The professor cites “Burn” (1969) and the French miniseries, “Toussaint L’ouverture” (2012), as but two examples. 

The elite of Hollywood always sent a clear message: They would never endorse a film depicting revolutionary violence against the white slave-owning class, lest this generation of Toussaints, Jean Jacques and Cecile Fatimans are inspired to emulate this historical example of reclaiming their own self-determination.

Poster for 2012 film "Toussaint L'ouverture"

Chapter 7, “Haitian Reflections of the Revolution’s Legacy,” is perhaps the most politically problematic and imbalanced chapter in the book. The four films Sepinwall reviews are “Dimanche 4 Janvier (Sunday January 4th),” “Moloch Tropical,” “GNB v. Attila” and “Haiti, la fin des chimeres (Haiti, the End of the Thugs).” They all share an anti-Aristide bent. This is curious considering Roger Noriega, the Clintons, the Bushes, the U.S. State Department and U.S. intelligence services always shared this same worldview against Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, twice orchestrating coups against his government and kidnapping him (See “Aristide: The Endless Revolution,” 2005). 

The Role of Video Games

The California State professor’s final chapters make the case that what has been banned on the big screen has reached millions through a most unlikely medium: Video games. Sepinwell reviews “Playing History 2—Slave Trade” (2013) and “Freedom!” (1992) as examples of video games that are “callous approaches to the subject” of slavery and revolution (p. 186). She reviews “Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry” (2013) and the work of Muriel Tramis and Patrick Chamoiseau as “counterhegemonic commemorations of slavery” (p. 207). 

Screenshot from video game "Assassin's Creed" / GameSpot
Screenshot from video game “Assassin’s Creed”

Haiti is again trending, for all of the wrong, stereotypical and racist reasons. The mainstream media incessantly using terms like “crisis-ridden,” “helpless,” “pitiful” and “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” are nauseating for those who understand the only break Haiti needs is from U.S. imperialism. At this critical time, Sepinwall’s scholarly study has a great deal to teach us about those who have used cinema to challenge age-old white supremacist views on Haiti.

Just as Chris Rock’s character, “Andre Allens,” seeks to emerge from under and from within white supremacy, so too does an entire history that culminated in 1804, a history that—more than ever—threatens to unlock answers for the future.

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