New book from CSUSM professor examines Haitian cinema revolution

Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Above: The 1952 20th Century Fox movie “Lydia Bailey” was a historic romance about two white Americans, but it used the Haitian rebellion as a backdrop and starred William Marshall (center) in a supporting role key.

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Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, professor of history at Cal State University San Marcos, has written a book called “Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games”.

Issued: August 4, 2021 | Transcription

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“Lydia Bailey” (1952)

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Historical context

The Haitian Revolution that began in the late 1700s was notable for being the first uprising of enslaved Africans in the New World to succeed in creating an independent state. So explains Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, professor of history at Cal State University San Marcos, in her new book “Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games”.

“The Haitian revolution was one of the most important events in the history of the modern world, but it is often one of the least discussed or understood,” Sepinwall said in an interview with Zoom. “Haiti had been a French colony called Saint-Domingue in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the richest colony in the Americas. This wealth came from the cultivation of sugar and coffee, which the Europeans made enslaved Africans in a truly brutal and back-breaking system. But after the French Revolution started in 1789 and the French whites were fighting each other. The slaves in Haiti realized this was the time when they could finally gain their freedom. So the Haitian revolution broke out in 1791 and three years later they had forced an end to slavery. “

It was an incredible tale of David vs. Goliath with the Haitian slaves fighting against Napoleon’s armies and winning. Still, it’s a chapter in the story that isn’t often told in movies or other media, and there’s a reason.

“The event frightened a lot of white people around the Atlantic world and in the United States,” Sepinwall said. “There was slavery back then, of course. So there was an effort to try to erase Haiti or to punish it so that slaves in other countries didn’t think of trying the same. There really was that effort. to be somehow amnesic or not to talk about it exactly for that reason, because it scared the slavers. “

And the idea of ​​blacks killing whites on screen frightened Hollywood. Mainstream films on the Haitian Revolution are therefore almost non-existent.

Haitian revolution in cinema

But there is a strange exception, 20th Century Fox’s “Lydia Bailey” from 1952 about two white Americans falling in love in the midst of the Haitian Revolution. It was based on a popular historical romance that no one at the studio had read.

“I was also able to access the pre-COVID archives at USC and Boston and the Oscar library to see the debates that were going on while they were making this movie, which was sort of an accidental Revolution movie. Haitian. Fox bought the rights to one of the greatest historical novels of 1947 and when they hadn’t seen the plot at all, when they read the script and thought about it, they realized it had to unfold in Haiti, which raised a lot of issues that they might be and maybe not ready to face at that time. It was also part of that wave of social post-race movies around this time that Fox and other studios did, including “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (on anti-Semitism in America). “

But the film is not available on any home media format, so it has been largely forgotten. There have been other non-Haitian films and TV shows on the revolution, but many are marred by tropes on slavery and colonialism or by a reluctance to portray the brutality of slave owners or the ability of the slave to conceive his own rebellion.

But despite these flaws in the few films that exist, Sepinwall said pop culture has an incredible ability to bring history to life.

“I love to read, but the texts are flat and two-dimensional,” Sepinwall said. “So I think the lived experience of seeing something on screen and being immersed in it, getting to know the characters and imagine how they lived often makes the story more real to people. Traditionally, the attitude of historians has been to despise historical films because they simply walked through them and said, “false, false, false, made up and imagined.” But pioneering film historian Robert Rosenstone, professor at Caltech, proposed a new way of thinking about cinema. it has to compress a lot of things in it, it can’t fix everything exactly or it is going to be boring and put people to sleep. So film is a different medium than text. And what we have to do with it. as historians, it’s finding a different way of thinking about the historical film instead of saying that every detail is right. We should rather say: does this film bring to life or bring to life something about the past that we could have missed if we were only looking at texts? “

So, some factual inaccuracy is okay as long as a movie doesn’t distort the larger truth of what was going on at the time.

Haitian filmmakers turned to the revolution of shorts, feature films and documentaries, but without the budgets or distribution reach of Hollywood and European companies.

Sepinwall also indicated that Chris Rock was an inspiration for the book. She cited his hosting of the Oscars where his jokes took hits against the white Hollywood establishment as well as a film he directed called “Top Five” (in which a comedian decides to make a serious film about the Haitian Revolution) as things that used humor. denounce systemic racism. She therefore offers a serious analysis to complete the comic treatment he has proposed of these problems.

Adewale (right) is Ubisoft's main character

Video games and history

Sepinwall’s book also looks at video games and in particular Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed: Freedom’s Cry” for a different take on the Haitian revolution.

“I will first say that most historians have completely ignored video games, a lot of us don’t play them,” Sepinwall said. “And then there was this assumption that if a movie makes mistakes, video games are even more trivializing. But, of course, the general public, especially the younger generation who love historic video games, are learning more about it. spent thanks to these games. often than they would in school. And the historic video game for people who don’t know is a billion dollar industry. I myself was surprised when I I first learned that there was a game that examined the resistance of enslaved Africans in Haiti in the 18th century. “

Sepinwall discovered the game thanks to a student.

“One of the things I realized when I watched the trailer for this game, ‘Assassin’s Creed: Freedom’s Cry, was that all the problems with non-Haitian foreign films about the Haitian revolution weren’t in this game, ”she explained. “This game made the public sympathize with the slaves. It didn’t whitewash the French slavery system. It made the players sympathize with the slaves trying to break free. So I thought it was pretty amazing. “

Since Sepinwall’s book deals with the number of films featuring stories of slave rebellion through the touchstone of a narrator or a white hero, I asked what kind of response she got as than a white American writing the book.

“I will say that I actually get more appreciation for this work from Haitians who really appreciate that I watch history and focus on Haitian cinema,” Sepinwall said. “But it’s also nice to see the reaction of the filmmakers to my book and that people appreciate some of their films that have never been written before, that I wrote about them in a very sensitive and thoughtful way. “

Sepinwall’s book is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Signed copies can be purchased at the Diesel Bookstore in Del Mar.

If you’re interested in Haitian film, head to the Haiti International Film Festival which begins August 13.

Photo by Beth Accomando

Beth accomando

Arts & Culture Journalist

opening quotesclosing quotesI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; see how pop culture reflects social issues; and provide a context for art and entertainment.

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