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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I first learned of Toussaint Louverture and his accomplishments on
Hispaniola by way of American sources of the period, and their take on
him was conflicted for all the obvious reasons (a republican revolution
sounds good, but it being led by a black former-slave surely seems a
bit uncomfortable). This two-part series was a great introduction to
the man from a more direct and personal perspective.
The basic framework of the film is as follows; in 1802 Toussaint Louverture is held captive in a prison in France, where a young aid to Napoleon Bonaparte is sent to extract from him the key to uncovering his great treasure, rumoured to be worth millions. Louverture is reluctant to cooperate at first, but gradually opens up to the man, perhaps recognizing that it might be a good way to get his own side of the story recorded in history. The film then switches back and forth between scenes of Louverture's life in the French colony of Saint-Domingue and his increasingly uncomfortable stay at Fort de Joux in eastern France.
The first part of the series is quite strong: we see how the young Toussaint is traded at the colony's slave markets, meets his future wife, learns to read and write, etc. It's a tight, well executed introduction to life at the plantation and to his background. At some point the already tense relation between the monarchists and republicans, French and Spanish, and inevitably the white, black and mulatto population leads to violence. Toussaint becomes involved, rises through the ranks of the 'blacks', and after some small skirmishes comes into contact with the Spanish. It's at this point that the story seems to start cutting corners. Before too long, Toussaint finds himself in a number of situations and positions that, while not necessarily historically inaccurate, might seem somewhat hard to follow because they follow each other in such rapid succession. Towards the end, the film even has Toussaint summarize events from his prison in France, which made me wonder if this was intended to be a longer series of perhaps three or four parts that had to be wrapped up in the second film. Or perhaps the rushed feeling of the second film was the result of budgetary constraints that meant that some of the military episodes of his life couldn't be shown. I don't know.
In any case, Jimmy Jean-Louis makes for a fantastic Toussaint Louverture. He shows a great range of emotions and exudes both wisdom and authority. It's not hard to imagine such a man becoming the leader of a revolt. I was also impressed by the performances of Aïssa Maïga as Toussaint's wife Suzanne, Yann Ebonge as his nephew Moïse, and Hubert Koundé as Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Though not shown in the film, Dessalines would eventually declare Haïti independent from France. On the French side we see Pierre Cassignard as the French general Étienne Maynaud Bizefranc de Lavaux, Eric Viellard as the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, and Stany Coppet as the scheming leader of the mulatto faction Benoit Joseph André Rigaud. All give convincing portrayals of their characters, as each seeks to navigate the continuously changing political and military landscape. It's important to remember that in this time the French revolution was still very much a current event, and the rise and fall of Maximilien de Robespierre cast long shadows across the Atlantic Ocean. I was less impressed by the French characters in France itself, but I don't want to ascribe that to the actors (Arthur Jugnot, Féodor Atkine, and Julie Dray) because that side of the story has only a fraction of the screen time compared to the main storyline in Saint-Domingue and serves mostly as a framework.
All in all then, this series of two films is definitely worth taking a look at if you're interested in the period, region, the history of slavery, the story of 'the only successful slave revolt in history' (though the Mamluks might disagree), or even just Jimmy Jean-Louis' excellent portrayal of Toussaint Louverture.
As for his treasure? Like Zhou Enlai famously said: 'It is too early to say'.
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