Arts & Culture

Telling Haitian Stories: A Conversation with Actor Jimmy Jean-Louis

Toussaint Louverture film festival interview pic

By Jean McGianni Celestin

Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing

Jimmy Jean-Louis: The Haitian Times Interview

Toussaint Louverture is one the most iconic figures in modern history. He is as major and noteworthy to the Western World as any historical character has been to a nation and its people in the last hundred years. Born into slavery on a plantation in Saint-Domingue in 1743, he became the father of the Haitian Revolution, which catalyzed independence movements all throughout Latin America. And more than two centuries since he helped establish Haiti as the first black republic in the West, Louverture remains divine in the Haitian cultural and political consciousness.

His intelligence as a general was unrivaled and his fortitude as a man frightened even the great Napoleon Bonaparte of France, whose armies were outmaneuvered and driven off the island by the uprising Louverture helped lead. Yet, like most black emancipators, Toussaint Louverture’s story has never gotten its fair shake.

It’s been largely unheard by the mainstream outside his homeland and, these days, it takes a Google search for the average person to tell you who he was.

A self-titled film released by French television filmmakers in Feb. 2012 is attempting to tell this long-awaited story. It stars Jimmy Jean-Louis as Louverture and Senegalese-born actress, Aïssa Maïga, as his wife, Suzanne. Toussaint Louverture is subtitled in the U.S. and told entirely in French and Haitian Creole, no doubt aimed at the European market than at traditional Hollywood audiences.

During its screening at the 20th Annual New York African Film Festival this past Sunday on the anniversary of Louverture’s death, I caught up with Jean-Louis inside the Frieda and Roy Furman Art Gallery of the Walter Reade Theater to get his thoughts on the film and the reality (or lack thereof) of depicting slavery accurately on the big screen.

Jean-Louis was the consummate professional and at one point even managed to politely silence some of the chatter in the room so we wouldn’t be disturbed. He looked like a man who had just ran a triathlon, because he was promoting the movie in Brooklyn through the Haitian Cultural Exchange the night before, so this was one of many press appearances he was scheduled to make.

 

How did you get cast for the title role of the film?

I actually received a phone call from the producers while I was in my home in L.A. and we scheduled a meeting in Martinique. That was the very first meeting. And a few months later, we met at the Cannes Film Festival, and then it was a done deal. The following year we started to shoot.

 

Did you have to audition or were you the person they had in mind the entire time?

I don’t know if they had me in mind the entire time, just because the movie went from one director to another, so I don’t know if each director had me in mind for it. But by the time it got to the final project that we see here tonight, I guess I was the first choice.

It is well-known that as a Haitian-born actor that you speak five languages, and that you’re fluent in French as well as in Creole and English. How much more preparation did you have to put into playing such an iconic character as Toussaint Louverture?

Well, because it’s the first time we were shooting a fiction about Toussaint, I knew it was very important to get the best Toussaint possible. Because that’s the one that the coming generation will identify with. Meaning, they’ll identify Toussaint with my face. So that forced me to take it a touch more seriously. I prepped for quite a bit before we started to shoot. I prepped to understand the character by speaking to people, by speaking to Haitians, reading books and watching documentaries about him, and also prepped physically. I had two months of classes of horse-riding and sword-fighting in L.A and in Paris. And I studied about what it is to be a general, what it is to be a governor and what it is to be a leader of a country. But within that preparation, I wanted to be as precise as possible during each phases of his life: being a slave and being freed.

He seemed like a reluctant hero in the film.

Usually, most heroes are reluctant. They start with basic ideas, and those ideas turn them into heroes and put them in the position of leadership. It was interesting to understand that while shooting and after shooting the movie. We finished the film two years ago, yet I’m still living very much with the character in me. I go across the world to promote the movie, to promote Haiti, to promote Toussaint Louverture, and automatically it puts me in a position of leadership.

Being that this film is a time piece and given the limited amount of visual and audio evidence there is to tell us what the character sounded and looked like, are you satisfied with how you depicted him throughout the different periods of his life?

From the research that I did, I didn’t have enough to have a complete understanding of what he looked like. Most people will tell you that he was very short and very dark, while others say he was actually pretty tall. So what I and the production decided to do was to eliminate everything we might have thought of him and instead give him what we wanted him to be like. Someone that people could easily identify with. And am I happy with result? Yes. I think he showed strength. In his best moments he had dignity and in his worse moments he had dignity, and that’s something that was essential to me―to always play him as a man of dignity.

What locations were used to film and how long did it take to complete?

Shooting… I think about three months. We shot in Paris, outside of Paris, in the mountains, and we shot in Martinique for all of the Haiti scenes.

 

The fort that we see in the film, is it the real Fort de Joux that he was imprisoned in?

It was really close to the real one. We did visit it, because we wanted to shoot there. But we wanted to add some elements in the visual aspect of the movie―one of them being the snow, and at the time when we were shooting there was no snow around that castle. So we chose another castle in another mountain. It was important to show the cruelty of sending him in such a place coming from a place like Haiti. It’s two extremes. And because it was a movie about slavery, we couldn’t really show the physical aspects of slavery because we had a white audience we were targeting. So we had to come up with elements.

So you guys were conscious of that missing in the film?

Of course.

Because one of my later questions was going to be about Danny Glover. It’s widely-known in the Hollywood community that he’s tried to produce a film about Toussaint. There was even a script floating out there and rumors of actors already having been cast–

Yeah, many scripts were floating.

Right. And one of the challenges he faced was that film executives didn’t think the audience would be receptive to a story like the Haitian Revolution, because it doesn’t have sympathetic white characters in it. So how do you think this film is different to what you know of Danny Glover’s idea for his version of Toussaint?

Well, it’s difficult to go into somebody’s mind and dig in to know what he’s thinking. I saw a few of the scripts running around, but I can’t really go into detail as far as what he might’ve had in mind. The one thing I can say is that he (Glover) was doing a film for the cinema, which would be three or four times more expensive than the one we did. Some of the battle scenes―he really wanted to create them, which makes sense. But you have to understand that those kinds of movies are not very easy to make in Hollywood.

Now that this Toussaint Louverture film is out, do you think that this tells the story? How would you feel if another project about Toussaint was to be made?

We can actually make as many movies as possible. I would love to see one, two, three or four other movies about Toussaint. Let’s not forget, we make many movies about Lincoln, or the Queen of whatever, so why not make more movies about Toussaint that’s English or Spanish-speaking? It doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that his story is known by all and is reminded always and constantly by all. The more people know about Toussaint, the more people know about Haiti’s history. And by knowing, you might change the perception. Because right now, it’s not well-balanced. We know of Haiti in what it represents with the earthquake, but we don’t know where we’re coming from. So I’ll definitely be for another English-speaking movie about it.

In playing devil’s advocate, what would you say to people who might think that by not showing the atrocities of slavery in order to cater to a more universal audience, that it takes away from the film and desensitizes people from the horror of what really happened?

Well, you know, as long as they can win that battle of distribution. Of course it would be better to show slavery as it was. But right now, I don’t think we have that kind of power. We don’t have the distribution or economical power to do what we want to do and do the stories we want to tell. That goes for slavery and for stories about the Black Continent, Africa. So for me, it all comes down to power.

On a more personal note, you’ve taken a more public role, especially recently, in Haiti through your non-profit, Hollywood Unites for Haiti. Tell us the work you’ve been doing with it and who you’ve pulled in?

It’s an organization that started in 2008. I just thought it was necessary to do something for the youth. I grew up in Haiti myself, so I know about what it’s like to not have too many choices. So I wanted to focus on helping culturally through sports and education. And why Hollywood? Because I wanted people to come together and speak about Haiti the same way they were talking about Sudan and Rwanda. So that’s really the vision I had for Hollywood Unites for Haiti. And of course when the earthquake happened, everyone went down to Haiti. Everything that we get goes straight to the people. It’s a very small organization, which I am an active president in and make sure that everything goes through me, so I always know what’s happening.

We built a school in Cadet about three years ago where we provide free education and food to the students. But we constantly need help, because as you know it’s not always easy running a school. We are the ones providing everything for the kids―books, pens―because their parents can’t afford it. So we try to encourage people to go into agriculture so that there might be a way for them to help us sustain the school in the future.

On a professional note, what’s next for you once you’re done running this marathon of promotional appearances for this film?

I have a few gigs coming out. There’s a movie called La marque des angesThe Mark of the Angel―shot in Paris with Gérard Depardieu coming out on June 26. I don’t know if there’s going to be any American distribution for it, but there are a few other projects I’m gonna be working on over the next few months, one being in Paris and Senegal. Another one is actually in Haiti. It’s called Ogou Le Revenant and it’s actually quite interesting. There’s another one that I’ll be doing with Haitian filmmaker, Jerry LaMothe, and that one is called The Promise Keeper. And there are some projects around that I’ll tell you more about as we get closer to completion.

 

 

Apr. 23, 2013

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