- Summary: Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall is a renowned scholar specializing in Haitian history. With a deep respect for the Haitian people, she avoids the practice of dismissing their understanding of their own history. Aware of the limitations imposed by historical documents, which were primarily recorded by colonizers, she acknowledges their partiality. Dr. Sepinwall firmly believes in the events portrayed in her research and book while acknowledging the need for caution and sensitivity when interpreting historical records. Her commitment to understanding and preserving the truth has made her a highly respected figure in the field of Haitian history.
- Intro: Welcome back to the Nèg Mawon Podcast! In today’s episode, we have a fascinating conversation with Professor Alyssa Sepinwall, an esteemed scholar in Haitian history. Our host, Patrick Jean-Baptiste, dives deep into the intersection of the Haitian Revolution, film, and video games.
- Prof. Sepinwall shares their insights on the often-overlooked topic of video games about slavery and the significance of studying them as sites of memory. They highlight the debates and contradictions within historical films, shedding light on how the Haitian Revolution has been portrayed on screen throughout the years. The conversation also delves into Prof. Sepinwall’s groundbreaking book, “Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games,” exploring their research on forgotten Hollywood films, behind-the-scenes stories, and the experiences of young Haitian filmmakers.
- Join us as we uncover the rich historical narratives and cultural representations surrounding the Haitian Revolution in film and video games. This episode is sure to be thought-provoking and eye-opening, giving us a fresh perspective on an often overlooked aspect of history. So grab your headphones, settle in, and let’s explore the revolutionary stories brought to life on screen!
- In Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall analyzes how films and video games from around the world have depicted slave revolt, focusing on the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804).
- Despite Hollywood’s near-silence on this event, some films on the Revolution do exist—from directors in Haiti, the US, France, and elsewhere. Slave Revolt on Screen offers the first-ever comprehensive analysis of Haitian Revolution cinema, including completed films and planned projects that were never made. In addition to studying cinema, this book also breaks ground in examining video games, a pop-culture form long neglected by historians. Sepinwall scrutinizes video game depictions of the Haitian slave revolt that appear in games like the Assassin’s Creed series that have reached millions more players than comparable films.
- In analyzing films and games on the revolution, Slave Revolt on Screen calls attention to the ways that economic legacies of slavery and colonialism warp pop-culture portrayals of the past and leave audiences with distorted understandings.
- The book draws upon a sweeping range of films and video games (a new genre) on or about the Revolution as well as personal relationships and interviews with some recent filmmakers. Yet the skillful hand of the historian is omnipresent as Sepinwall brilliantly weaves together the history of the Haitian Revolution and the history of filmmaking about it, urgently calling for the yet-to-come masterpiece film on this historically epic Black liberation struggle for freedom.”
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:00:17]:
This podcast is sponsored by the BLCK Media Group, providing a humanist canon narrative approach On behalf of the black diaspora. Everybody. Patrick here. Welcome to another episode. I am a student of Haitian history, not just in in the traditional sense of, You know, learning about the who, what, when, and where, I have a particular fund that’s for historiography because it’s basically the, You know, it’s the process of of how historians, you know, gather their primary sources and and, You know, the selections that they go through of of of picking up particular details from those primary sources and also how they they synthesize Oh, everything at the end and then, into a a coherent narrative that that can stand Critical examination either, you know, by their colleagues or ultimately by the general public. So that’s kind of the approach I you’ll notice that particular type of approach, in some of the questions that I ask A Haitian historian, doctor Alisa Seppenwald, she discusses her groundbreaking new book titled slave revolt on screen, the Haitian revolution in film and video games. I had a wonderful time in, in this interview, and I hope you do as well. Doctor Sebenoit, I have got to ask you this question.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:02:05]:
And at the risk of Starting another Haitian civil war. The question is, fact or fiction?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:02:15]:
I have to Say that is a very funny question to start a question to a non Haitian on. That’s a powder keg question. I thought you might ask me first why am I interested in Haitian history.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:02:27]:
Oh, that’s coming. That’s coming.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:02:29]:
Okay. Perfect. I I will say that as a non Haitian scholar of Haitian history, I don’t like it as a practice To be telling Haitians that their idea of their history is wrong, I think that would be a very strange thing for me to be doing in this field. For me to say, I looked at the documents and it didn’t happen the way it came down to you. We know of course that the documents are only partial And that the documents that we had were generally recorded by colonists. So, I’m I’m convinced. I’ll just leave it here, and I say this in my book. I’m convinced that it happened.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:03:10]:
There’s Certainly some debate about which day it would have been, and exactly where The location was in Northern Haiti, but yes, I’m convinced that it happened. There was a ceremony, and Cecile Fatima and Boukman Dutti, Kicked off the revolution then.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:03:31]:
Okay. Awesome. Alright. Thank you for that. So what I passed that one. Why did you choose Haitian history as your academic interest, and do you speak Creole?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:03:46]:
I speak French much better than I speak Creole. I I I know some phrases, but so I’ll tell you. I’m coming out of French history. I was trained as a French historian. My first book was on the French priest Henri Gregoire. But as someone who was studying the French Revolution, and from my own personal background, which I can Discuss. I was definitely interested in how, the French in the Enlightenment and the Revolution treated groups who were seen as others, And that included Jews, and it included enslaved people. So that’s one of the things that got me there.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:04:24]:
I will say also that I’m from New Jersey, and also from an immigrant family. And when I grew up in New Jersey, my own family is Jewish, but my Friends were from all over, and so we just had the same issue. What does it mean to be an American and hold on To your, own traditions. And being so close to New York City, I already loved many things about, Caribbean music and culture. So when I started to study the French revolution and I realized this was in the 19 nineties, That there were many historians of France and the French revolution who were ignoring Haiti. They were writing about the French revolution and not even mentioning this at all.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:05:07]:
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:05:07]:
And I’ll I’ll say there, I I just laughed a little. I don’t think it’s funny. I do that sometimes. It’s kind of shocking to think about how this was left out Of history. But so I was part of a group of scholars of the French Revolution in the 1990s who started to say, let’s look At what happened in the colonies and look at Haiti. And what I just did over time, Patrick, is I shifted, My gaze and the way that I was doing history, so that I wasn’t kind of standing as if my feet were in Metropolitan France looking over at Haiti, but I Kind of moved to try to have the the lens be starting in Haiti and looking back at Europe. And that’s something that I’ve tried to do over the course of my work, after that first book, and I hope it’s been useful.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:06:03]:
Speaking of gays, I’m thinking of, Cuyo’s, silencing the past. Particularly, I have in mind his 2 concepts of unthinkability and The, failure of narration. Can you expand on how those 2 concepts, informed your writing of this book?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:06:29]:
Patrick, this is my favorite podcast ever because I love that question. I mean, Tuio’s Silencing the Past is so core to my book. I wasn’t even writing a book initially. I, Have been working on historiography and curriculum and thinking about how the Haitian Revolution has been erased, from textbooks, And just from popular consciousness in the US and in France. And then I started to see, some of these Films like the French Toussaint Louverture miniseries, and I realized just how much what was going on in a film like that fit The way that Trouillot talked about the Haitian Revolution being unthinkable, and it being even when it’s mentioned, Kind of being banalized and trivialized
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:07:17]:
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:07:18]:
As if to suggest that, You know, Haitians didn’t really need to revolt because slavery was not so bad. So definitely, Trouillot really, underscores my book and shapes the way I think about foreign films on the Haitian Revolution versus Haitian films. In what way do foreign films, Not really grasp the idea that Haitians could have planned and organized their own revolution. Burn Featuring Marlon Brando, is one of the films that I talk about. And that film is a kind of fictionalization of the Haitian Revolution That suggests that some white British dude tricked an enslaved person who’s supposed to be like Toussaint into starting the Haitian Revolution, into starting a a revolution of enslaved people. So I I think that fits a lot of these patterns that Trujillo identified.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:08:15]:
Failure of narration has a long pedigree in Hollywood, I would think. I’m thinking of, Birth of a Nation. Can you, can you tell us a little bit more about that particular movie?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:08:31]:
I mean, you have this whole cinematic tradition with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation being a film that’s considered a masterpiece by many film studies people at many film schools for a long time. And this was a deeply racist film that, helped propagandize the Ku Klux Klan and spread this idea of slavery as a good thing, with enslaved people as being naturally inferior. And so you have that kind of tradition in cinema, And you have an educational system that’s been erasing Haiti, and it’s hard, I would say, even today for studios to fully think their way out of that. That’s why I discuss in the book that there are many execs who can’t imagine greenlighting a film on this topic, which is about African descended people rising up as revolutionaries to kill white people. That’s how they see this story And they see that as something scary instead of this being a great achievement, that people who’d been degraded and oppressed managed to organize And kick out their oppressors. So, yeah, I think these failures of narration run deep.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:09:48]:
What is Le Dieux du Bismoy? And how is it used in film analysis? Can you please expand on that?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:09:58]:
Thank you again. That’s a really wonderful question. You know, someone my my book is not just about films and the Haitian Revolution, but also video games. And so I know that when People hear the idea that video games and slavery, it’s not something that immediately sounds like, A worthwhile topic of study, and especially, I’m a white scholar working on Haitian history. It seems strange, but I think that it’s important to take Things like video games or films seriously as sites of memory. To borrow this idea from Pierre Noga, These are places where the public, you can see how slavery is remembered. So that doesn’t mean that I think that all of these games on slavery are good ideas. Some of them are horrible, but some of them, as I argue, given the Failures of narration in Hollywood actually do a better job at, portraying the perspectives of, enslaved Haitians than the films.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:11:01]:
When it comes to historical Documentaries versus historical films or or video games And where but specifically for films and and and video games, when the facts aren’t the historical facts aren’t all there, What other factors should we be considering in those 2 particular genres I mentioned?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:11:32]:
Yes. I would say I wouldn’t want something to be completely historically inaccurate, but the question as a historian is do I care about every single error in a film. And I take inspiration here, from the film historian Robert Rosenstone, who’s a very interesting fellow, grew up in Montreal, and moved to California. And, originally a historian of Russia, and he got involved in Hollywood being in LA, Advising on a film adaptation of his book, Red. Rosenstone argues that historians need to realize that a film and a book are different Beings and the standards that we have for a book, that a book needs to be precise and factually accurate if it’s a history book, Is not the same for film. He argues that if a film is a 100% accurate, first of all, it’s gonna have to take hours and hours and hours, And so they can’t show it at the cinema. You have to compress something to 90 minutes. Right? Maximum 2 hours or people will say it was too long.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:12:33]:
And that process involves some simplification, sometimes collapsing, right, 5 different characters into 1 as a kind of Every man of the historical process. And so I I think that’s interesting. And he and then my, Friend, Professor Lawrence Baron, who’s written about Holocaust films, also said the larger issues we have to ask is what does this film teach people about this historical process. Will they understand it better after they’ve seen the film than if they didn’t? And if, you know, a date is wrong or a person is in the film who didn’t actually exist. That’s not as important as something that distorts the past. So for me, A film that might get, details right and names right, but take a really neocolonialist position and portray Haitians As barbarians, that would be much worse for me than a film that invents some characters, gets some dates wrong, but Still portrays, the Haitian revolution from, Haitian and enslaved people’s perspective.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:13:40]:
You mentioned Haiti’s role in the birth of, Modern universalism. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that, please?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:13:54]:
French like to claim themselves As the creator of modern ideas of Universalism, meaning that all men or all people are equal. But scholars have pointed out that, of course, in 17/89, when the French passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, they still maintain Slavery. And it was not until after Haitians rose up and challenged the French that eventually 5 years later in 17/94, The French acknowledged, okay, you’re free. We’ll we’ll say slavery is bad. And even so, they did not carry this news To their own Indian Ocean colonies where slavery continued. So, by contrast, the Haitian Revolution Abolished slavery, the 18 05 constitution made all Haitians equal. Now, since we’re talking, I have to give 2 kind of asterisks or qualifications there. Were Haitian women equal to Haitian men? If you look at the 18 05 constitution, it uses a lot of language that’s about men.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:15:01]:
A good citizen is a good father and a good soldier. So that is definitely a debate in Haitian history. There’s also the notorious section that talks about whites In the constitution, not being able to own property. So that would seem contrary to universalism. But I like that Dessalines comes back right away After saying that, by saying this article does not include white women who’ve been naturalized, and these are presumably white women married to Haitians, And it also doesn’t include, the Polish and German mercenaries who came over to our side, and then in the next article of the 18 05 Constitution, He said, he says, right. Having said all of that, from here on, all Haitians, no matter what their skin color, will be known By the generic name of blacks.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:15:53]:
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:15:53]:
So it was as if to try to eliminate skin color difference and say we’re all the same. And so, yes, that’s different a different model than something that said all men are equal, but was referring only to whites.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:16:05]:
Let’s talk about the video game genre now. How did you, you know, decide to look into, that particular area as far as how slavery or the Haitian revolution is, depicted.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:16:26]:
I I would not have thought of studying video games. As I mentioned in the acknowledgments of my book, I played video games when I was younger. I was on the cutting edge there in New Jersey playing them on this little terminal that didn’t have a screen. But it’s certainly not something that I have continued as an adult. I love cinema. I don’t play video games, But I was teaching a class on comparative French colonialism in Haiti, Algeria, and Vietnam, We were studying slavery in colonial Haiti and Saint Domingue, and one of my students, Nick Boyan, said to me One day, oh, Doctor. S, there’s a new video game coming out about what we’re studying. And I said, what do you mean there’s a video game coming out about what we’re studying.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:17:13]:
And he said there’s a video game about slave revolt in Saint Domingue. And that just seemed really incredible to me. I didn’t think it could be true. I thought he must be confused. I didn’t know that there were video games about such things. And he sent me the trailer, and I looked at it, and it was Pretty amazing. It’s set in the 17 thirties. It really should be set in the 17 fifties, right, if we’re gonna talk about, A mockandal and and more revolts happening.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:17:41]:
But it showed, enslaved people in Saint Domingue in this effort to rise up against colonizers. And that was puzzling to me, so I wondered how there could be this game, and the game really seemed to take the perspective Of enslaved people or formerly enslaved people. So I wanted to investigate what that was. So I started, Patrick, not writing a book. I was just writing a fun little article that was gonna be about the few films on the Haitian Revolution that I knew about, and then comparing it to this kind of Unicorn. This game that I had found out about, that was about resistance in prerevolutionary Haiti. And as I started to get into this work more, I started to discover more films. And then people also use also started to tell me about other games.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:18:33]:
And I realized also that there was this whole field of games that were about slavery not just in Haiti, But elsewhere, and historians had not studied them. There were some scholars in some other fields, but again, historians seem to hear these words video games and slavery and think I’m not going near that. But as I argue, I think these are important sites of memory, and I think we have to look at them To say if they’re awful or if they’re doing something that’s interesting. And the thing that I was most excited to find out about Then were that there were these games that had been created in the 19 eighties by Martinique and intellectuals, working in France. And so that got me very, excited because I I love studying Haiti, but I also enjoy reading works by Martinique and intellectuals, so that was fun to find.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:19:40]:
Can you expand on Robert Topplin’s three levels of, film analysis? If I remember them correctly, 1 is analyzing the content of a film. The other is how it was received, and the third is the Debates, the the behind the scene, debate that go on, during production. Can you, let us know how those particular levels informed You your book, Slave Revolt on screen.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:20:28]:
As a historian, I like to use archives when they’re available. And certainly, for films that were made independently or that I can’t reach the filmmaker, then I don’t have background Into the making of the film. But it was really, pretty amazing to be able to find when I found this 1 Hollywood film that has been forgotten, that was made on the Haitian Revolution in 1952, Lydia Bailey, to discover that I could read The, 20th Century Fox and the screenwriter and the director’s notes arguing with each other about what kind of film this should be. So for that film, Lydia Bailey, I was able to analyze the content of the film, How did Hollywood portray The Haitian Revolution. I was able to look at how it was received when this film came out. What did mainstream US newspaper say? What did African American newspapers say? What did they say in France? Because it showed there oh, and what is what did they say in Haiti? Because the Film premiered in Port au Prince in 1952 under president Maguire, which is a really fascinating story That I tell part of, in chapter 3. And there I’m also able to talk about the behind the scenes. Basically how did this film, Which I consider to be at the end a bit of a hot mess.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:21:50]:
How did it end up that way? What were the debates that made it have some really amazing And wonderful things, and then some really awful things. How do they all end up in the same film? For the video games, I would say I don’t, have the same access for all of them, but I was able to interview 2 creators. And in particular, I was able to talk to Michel Trami, who is from Martinique and who’s a French citizen, and she was able to talk to me about the making of these games, that she did in the 1980s with Patrick Shamuazo, which were called Muhillo and Freedom Rebels in the Darkness. And She’s been very kind and I was able to do a few different interviews with her. So, yeah, for that for those games also, I’m able to analyze the content, Talk about how gamers saw them in the eighties and now if they’ve rediscovered them and and talk a little about the behind the
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:22:46]:
Why is the movie Lydia Bailey so hard to find?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:22:52]:
One of the reasons that Lydia Bailey was hard for people to know about is Fox never released it On home video in the US, they didn’t release a DVD. They didn’t release a VHS, and so libraries don’t own it. It doesn’t get shown on TV. It’s like this film that was about, Haitian revolutionaries, and celebrating Haitian revolutionaries in a US film just kind of fell off the map. So there were a few stray references to it, in some scholarship on black film because there were a couple of prints of the original film at film archives like UCLA, So people who were able to see it there at least mentioned the film, and there were a couple of Haitian historians Like a Matthew Smith, who’s actually from Jamaica, who mentioned in passing this premiere that was held in Port Out Plans for the Film. So then I set about trying to find it, And I discovered that there is a DVD, but you have to buy it from Amazon in Spain because it’s only available for sale in Spain. And even though they’re Spanish subtitles, it’s still the original English. So that’s how I got my copy.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:24:04]:
Meanwhile, occasionally someone will digitize a copy and throw it up online, and then Fox finds out about it and takes it down. So it is possible that there is a version on YouTube now or not. I can I can check for you later?
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:24:19]:
I’ll keep checking.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:24:20]:
Also. Yeah. I I did acquire an original print of the film. It’s in my garage. Wow. From from the, African American Star of the film, William Marshall.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:24:33]:
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:24:34]:
His family was didn’t need all of his stuff anymore, and One of the groups of things that they were selling was his Lydia Bailey memorabilia. So I was able to get a print of the film, I was able to get his contract from the studio and then a whole series of pictures from making the film and from when they went to Pardot Plants and Canscoff, while they were making the film. So, yeah, it’s it’s fun to have those here.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:25:03]:
Chris Rock directed a movie called Top 5 in which his, character Andre had a passion project about the Haitian revolution, and he couldn’t the character couldn’t get that movie made. Can you Tell us about, feature films on the Haitian revolutions that, never left the drawing board.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:25:29]:
So so since I’m talking about William Marshall, I’ll stick there for a moment. Okay. You know, William Marshall was in Lydia Bailey in the 19 in 1952. He this fictional Haitian revolutionary who was friends with Toussaint, and his name in the book, on which the film was based and then in the film, is King Dick. Mhmm. Right? Now think about this. This is ridiculous. It is some kind of stereotype of a black man, and Yeah.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:25:58]:
He in the film he has 7 wives, so that’s kind of ridiculous. That’s one of the bad things about the film. Although King Dick is really a prince of a guy. And and yeah. William Marshall did his best. So when William Marshall had to do publicity for the film in 1952, and and this is before Sidney Poitier And before Harry Belafonte becomes stars, William Marshall is gonna be the guy. He’s gonna be the Denzel Washington, the first one of the time, the The 1st Black man in these kind of dramatic roles, there’s publicity, he gets this big contract. So he, he, he’s positive about the film.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:26:38]:
But later in the 19 sixties, he says that film was ridiculous, and it didn’t have anything to do with Haitian history. And I wanna make a serious film about the revolution, and I wanna center it on Christophe. So he tries to make a film about Henri Stuff, and it’s gonna be part of this whole series of serious pictures on black history. And he tries to do it, and he tries to fundraise From all of the black millionaires in the US, not to mention certain other black movie stars who had eclipsed him. I might mumble someone’s name that starts with s or not, and they, declined to invest. So he didn’t raise enough money in the end. That’s certainly one of these failed project. Another project that I, keep, think is interesting is Anthony Quinn.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:27:32]:
Also, otherwise known as Zorba, also wanted to make a Christophe film in which he, a very pale man of Irish and Mexican descent, wanted to play Christophe, which would have involved blacking up. And he was this is this is now in the early 19 seventies. He was very upset and very offended that, African American actors said this was a bad idea, And that a black man should play Kristoff, and he said, that’s horrible. How could you say that? That’s like saying that James Earl Jones shouldn’t play roles that were designed for whites, and that’s a whole controversy. And that film, I’m happy, Patrick, that that one was not made. But, yeah, I I talk in my book about a whole series of projects that people tried to make, that did not work.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:28:25]:
Tell us about the 2 kinds of films on the Haitian revolution made by Haitians.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:28:34]:
There’s certainly not a big expensive epic on the Haitian Revolution by Haitians, because of resource issues. But I I point to 2 kinds of Sets of films. On the one hand, you have films about Cusanne Louverture, and they’re either shorts, documentary shorts or full length documentaries that have been made by young Haitian filmmakers. And 3 that I talk about Maxence Denis, Kendi Veriluz, and Pierre Lucson Bellegarde, who has become a friend. So I talk about their films About Chuseok. But also, I think there are other films, in Haitian cinema that Talk about the revolution and its heritage while discussing other things. So Arnold Antoinette has certainly made films During the dictatorship, and at other times that referred to the revolutionary heritage. And so I talk about them and there are a lot of films that were made about the bicentennial about 2003 and 2004.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:29:38]:
And even though they’re really about Aristide, there’s a lot of indication of the revolutionary heritage. So I talk about those films also As a site of Haitian memory, how do Haitians think about, Toussaint, Dessalines, Petion, and Christophe? What are those films? Tell us about that.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:29:58]:
Imagine Haitian filmmakers having An unlimited budget to make, you know, the ideal epic film about the Haitian revolution. What are some some some key components that, you know, non specialists or, you know, the viewing audience Would Haitians particularly would appreciate about, you know, that kind of ideal, representation On the Haitian revolution?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:30:31]:
Yeah. That’s a great question. I talk a little bit about that in in the conclusion of my book also. 1st of all, I think that it needs to be made either by a Haitian director or with heavy Haitian participation. I know of some projects that are going on right now of foreigners Trying to make Haitian revolution films. And if you don’t have Haitians involved, you’re just not going to get that perspective. It’s gonna be more or less failures of narration, or more or less racism, in the film. I I I happen I happen to have read a script that I think would have been an excellent film.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:31:11]:
And this was this effort by Raul Peck to make a film about Toussaint Louverture, that would have been a Drama, and I talk about what happened with that film, in my book. I hear people tell me that he might be working on a new project on the Haitian Revolution. And I think that would be really exciting because I think that, I’ve written about Paik in this book and in other places. I think that he’s a really model Historical filmmaker. Mhmm. Whether he’s doing yeah. Whether he’s doing a documentary or a drama, He really likes to capture the essence of what was happening at the time. And this script that I, was given by someone, In the production of this film that ended up not being made, it presented The revolution, it presented things like Vodou without sensationalizing them.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:32:04]:
Just as matter of fact, it showed that the Haitian revolutionaries fought with each other And that they disagreed and they were imperfect, but it didn’t portray them as racist buffoons. It didn’t glorify the French. It showed that slavery was horrible, without kind of fetishizing torture, And I think it just would have been a great film. So I’d love to see something like that be made, by Peck or by someone else.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:32:31]:
You broke so many new grounds with slave revolt on the screen. Did you say everything you needed to say In this book, or do you still have additional materials that would merit a sequel?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:32:50]:
I have a an article I’d like to do I’d like to write a little more because I couldn’t include everything in the book, but about the Port au Prince premier of Lydia Bailey in 1952. I think that’s a really interesting story. I have a longer conference paper that I wrote about that, that I just with everything going on in the pandemic and doing the book, I haven’t had time to convert into an article. So I’d love to Write about that more. I mean, it’s a fascinating story. The Maglaur government spending all of this money to fly these stars and journalists into Haiti To show off golden age Haiti. And 1952, if you had money in Haiti, there was a lot going on. There were there were Places to shop.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:33:34]:
There was a casino. There were cinemas. The hotels were swinging. There were nightclubs. And, you know, that’s going to be a lot of that is going to be erased, first by hurricane Hazel, And then by the dictatorship making it a less pleasant place to visit. So that Kind of moment in the golden age I would like to talk more about. Another project that I might do, I just Need to be able to find more documents. I didn’t know so this is something missing from my book.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:34:09]:
This is missing from chapter 4 About failed film projects on Haitian Revolution. In the earliest days of African American cinema in the 19 teens As kind of the reaction to Birth of a Nation, there were African American filmmakers trying to raise money for Haitian revolution films. So I didn’t know about these early efforts in the teens, and I’ve gathered some information. I have it sitting in my computer, and I’d like to be able To see what else I can find
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:34:38]:
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:34:39]:
About that. I think that’s a super interesting topic in the 19 teens and 19 twenties. I don’t think that it, that those films were made. Right. Some of them might not have been preserved, but what I’ve been able to find so far, they weren’t. But I think it’s fascinating, right, why these Upwardly mobile right before the Tulsa massacre. African Americans thought it was important to make Haitian Revolution films as they, created black cinema in the US.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:35:08]:
So, Alyssa, tell us how we can get your book.
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:35:13]:
If they go straight to the University Press of Mississippi’s website, they just Google slavery vote on screen, and then they go to Mississippi is they can use code s r o s, like slavery rolled on screen, s r o s 2021, And that will give them a 30% off. And that’s till the beginning of November, but we’ll see if they can extend it.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:35:36]:
Well, Doctor. Sebenwall, any final thoughts?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:35:39]:
Wonderful questions. I’m lucky to have had such a thoughtful reader, and I’m really happy to be able Because when when when one writes a book like this, one wants to be able to share it not just with other academics, but with anyone who cares about Haiti, Anyone thoughtful who likes to read books. The other thing, if it’s okay, I’ll put in a plug for my last book, which was called Haitian History New Perspectives, And that’s a book also that I think that listeners would find interesting. I tried to bring together, 15 of the best articles by Haitian and foreign scholars on Haitian history from the 18th century till after the earthquake, And the book is bookended by Trouillot. I’ve got Michel Rolfe at the beginning and Evelyn at the end. Oh, wow. And I also give kind of a survey of debates, on Haitian history and what areas there are for future research. So that’s called Haitian history, New perspectives.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:36:40]:
And where can we find you online?
Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:36:42]:
I’m on Twitter and I tweet as doctor Sepinwall, d r s e p I n u a l l. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk to you, Patrick.
Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:36:55]:
I hope you enjoyed This episode as much as I did, if you haven’t done so already, please go to podcast.com. Scroll down until you see the chain icon
00:00:17 Podcast sponsored by BLCK Media Group; discussing Haitian history and film.
00:05:07 Shifting perspective: Haiti’s overlooked historical significance explained.
00:08:31 Cinema’s racist traditions hinder inclusive storytelling.
00:11:32 Film historian Rosenstone argues historical accuracy is flexible.
00:17:41 Enslaved people rising up against colonizers in Saint Domingue.
00:20:28 Historian analyzes forgotten Hollywood film on Haitian Revolution.
00:22:52 Rare film about Haitian revolutionaries hard-to-find.
00:26:38 Failed film project on Haitian history, insufficient funds.
00:28:34 Limited Haitian films on Haitian Revolution, but some made by young filmmakers. Notable filmmakers: Maxence Denis, Kendi Veriluz, Pierre Lucson Bellegarde. Others discuss revolution in relation to other topics. Arnold Antoinette also made films on revolution.
00:32:50 Port-au-Prince premier of Lydia Bailey, 1952
00:35:39 Grateful for thoughtful reader; promoting book.
00:00:17 Podcast sponsored by BLCK Media Group, discussing Haitian history and interview with Dr. Alisa Seppenwald about her book on the Haitian revolution in media.
00:05:07 The author shifted their perspective on history, starting with Haiti and looking back at Europe, finding it shocking that this aspect was left out.
00:08:31 The cinematic tradition includes racist films celebrating slavery and erasing Haiti. Executives struggle to support stories of African revolutionaries, reflecting deep-rooted failures of narration.
00:11:32 Historians accept some inaccuracies in films due to time constraints.
00:17:41 The text discusses a game about resistance in prerevolutionary Haiti, which sparked the author’s curiosity and led to an investigation on related films and games.
00:20:28 The historian analyzes a forgotten Hollywood film on the Haitian Revolution, examining its content and reception worldwide, including behind-the-scenes conflicts.
00:22:52 Lydia Bailey unavailable in US, only in Spain on DVD.
00:26:38 Director wanted to make a serious film about Haitian history but couldn’t raise enough funds.
00:28:34 Films by young Haitian filmmakers focus on Cusanne Louverture while others touch upon the revolution and its heritage. Arnold Antoinette also made films about the revolution.
00:32:50 The article discusses the 1952 premier of Lydia Bailey in Port au Prince and the extravagant spending by the Maglaur government to showcase Haiti’s prosperity.
00:35:39 Grateful for thoughtful reader, wants to share book about Haiti. Also recommends previous book, “Haitian History: New Perspectives.”
A. Speaker expresses gratitude for thoughtful questions
B. Emphasizes importance of sharing book with broad audience
C. Mentions previous book “Haitian History New Perspectives”
II. Book Overview
A. Features articles by Haitian and foreign scholars
B. Covers Haitian history from 18th century to post-earthquake
C. Bookends by Michel Rolfe and Evelyn Trouillot
D. Provides survey of debates in Haitian history and suggestions for future research
E. Discussion on qualities of a good citizen in Haitian history
III. Debate on Haitian Constitution
A. Notorious section prohibiting whites from owning property
B. Clarification that it does not apply to white women, Polish and German mercenaries
C. Declaration that all Haitians referred to as “blacks”
IV. The Importance of Studying Games about Slavery
A. Games as important sites of memory
B. Historians’ avoidance of studying games about slavery
C. Discovery of games created in the 1980s by Martinique intellectuals
V. Cinematic Tradition and Representation of Haitian Revolution
A. Films like Birth of a Nation propagandizing the Ku Klux Klan
B. Erasure of Haiti in the educational system and its impact on the film industry
C. Reluctance of studios to greenlight films about African-descended revolutionaries
D. Failures of narration in the film industry and education system
VI. Interviews with Video Game Creators
A. Interviewing creators, including Michel Trami, about video games in the 1980s
B. Analysis of game content and perspectives of gamers in the 80s
VII. Critique of Foreign Films on Haitian Revolution
A. Inaccurate portrayal of Haitians’ ability to plan and organize their revolution
B. Mention of “Burn Featuring Marlon Brando” as an example
C. Following patterns identified by Trouillot in their book
VIII. Video Games and Film as Sites of Memory for Slavery
A. Importance of taking video games and films seriously
B. Not all games are good, but some portray perspectives of enslaved Haitians better than films
C. Process of simplification and collapsing in historical films
D. Professor Lawrence Baron’s perspective on the importance of Holocaust films
IX. Historical Context of French Universalism and Haitian Revolution
A. French claiming themselves as creators of modern ideas of Universalism
B. French passing Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789 while maintaining slavery
C. Haitians challenging French, leading to abolition of slavery in 1794
D. Abolition not extended to French Indian Ocean colonies
X. Research on Forgotten Hollywood Film
A. Discovering forgotten Hollywood film “Lydia Bailey” made on Haitian Revolution
B. Analysis of film content and its reception in newspapers in the US, France, and Haiti
C. Premiere of film in Port au Prince under President Maguire
D. Discussion on behind-the-scenes of the film
XI. Haitian Filmmakers and Cinema
A. Mention of young Haitian filmmakers, including Maxence Denis, Kendi Veriluz, and Pierre Lucson Bellegarde
B. Films referencing revolutionary heritage by Arnold Antoinette
C. Films made about bicentennial of Haitian Revolution in 2003 and 2004
D. Mention of Raul Peck’s film on Toussaint Louverture and potential new project
XII. Importance of Accuracy and Representation in Film
A. Speaker’s perspective as a historian on accuracy in films
B. Inspiration from film historian Robert Rosenstone on compression in films
C. Preference for films that portray Haitian and enslaved people’s perspectives accurately
XIII. Availability of Film “Lydia Bailey”
A. Film not widely known and fell off the map
B. Limited prints available at film archives
C. Discovery of DVD available for sale in Spain with English subtitles.
A. Mention of podcast sponsorship by BLCK Media Group
B. Speaker’s interest in historiography and interviewing Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall
C. Encouragement for audience to listen to the interview.
Hollywood’s Failure of Narration: “That’s why I discuss in the book that there are many execs who can’t imagine greenlighting a film on this topic, which is about African descended people rising up as revolutionaries to kill white people. That’s how they see this story And they see that as something scary instead of this being a great achievement, that people who’d been degraded and oppressed managed to organize And kick out their oppressors. So, yeah, I think these failures of narration run deep.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:09:15 → 00:09:47]
Video Games and Slavery: “It’s important to take things like video games or films seriously as sites of memory.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:10:24 → 00:10:31]
Historical Accuracy in Films: “I take inspiration here, from the film historian Robert Rosenstone, who’s a very interesting fellow, grew up in Montreal, and moved to California. And, originally a historian of Russia, and he got involved in Hollywood being in LA, Advising on a film adaptation of his book, Red. Rosenstone argues that historians need to realize that a film and a book are different Beings and the standards that we have for a book, that a book needs to be precise and factually accurate if it’s a history book, Is not the same for film.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:11:42 → 00:12:17]
The Importance of Historical Accuracy in Films: “And if, you know, a date is wrong or a person is in the film who didn’t actually exist. That’s not as important as something that distorts the past. So for me, A film that might get, details right and names right, but take a really neocolonialist position and portray Haitians As barbarians, that would be much worse for me than a film that invents some characters, gets some dates wrong, but Still portrays, the Haitian revolution from, Haitian and enslaved people’s perspective.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:13:05 → 00:13:39]
French Hypocrisy in Universalism: “French like to claim themselves as the creator of modern ideas of Universalism, meaning that all men or all people are equal. But scholars have pointed out that, of course, in 17/89, when the French passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, they still maintain Slavery.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:13:54 → 00:14:14]
Lost Films and Historical Analysis: “It was really, pretty amazing to be able to find when I found this 1 Hollywood film that has been forgotten, that was made on the Haitian Revolution in 1952, Lydia Bailey, to discover that I could read The, 20th Century Fox and the screenwriter and the director’s notes arguing with each other about what kind of film this should be.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:20:42 → 00:21:06]
The Making of Video Games: “How did it end up that way? What were the debates that made it have some really amazing And wonderful things, and then some really awful things. How do they all end up in the same film?”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:21:50 → 00:22:01]
The Hidden Gem of Lydia Bailey: “One of the reasons that Lydia Bailey was hard for people to know about is Fox never released it On home video in the US, they didn’t release a DVD. They didn’t release a VHS, and so libraries don’t own it.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:22:52 → 00:23:06]
Haitian Revolution in Films: “There’s certainly not a big expensive epic on the Haitian Revolution by Haitians, because of resource issues. But I I point to 2 kinds of Sets of films.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:28:34 → 00:28:44]
“Haitian History: New Perspectives.”: “I tried to bring together, 15 of the best articles by Haitian and foreign scholars on Haitian history from the 18th century till after the earthquake.”
— Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall [00:36:11 → 00:36:21]
“The Humanist Canon Narrative Approach On behalf of the Black Diaspora”: “I am a student of Haitian history, not just in the traditional sense of learning about the who, what, when, and where, I have a particular fondness for historiography because it’s basically the process of how historians gather their primary sources and the selections that they go through of picking up particular details from those primary sources and also how they synthesize everything at the end into a coherent narrative that can stand Critical examination either by their colleagues or ultimately by the general public.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:01:06 → 00:01:11]
“Why did you choose Haitian history as your academic interest, and do you speak Creole?”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:03:38 → 00:03:45]
The Unthinkability and Failure of Narration: “Speaking of gays, I’m thinking of Cuyo’s silencing the past. Particularly, I have in mind his 2 concepts of unthinkability and The failure of narration.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:06:07 → 00:06:17]
The Failure of Narration in Hollywood: “Failure of narration has a long pedigree in Hollywood, I would think. I’m thinking of, Birth of a Nation.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:08:15 → 00:08:25]
Historical Accuracy in Media: “When the facts aren’t the historical facts aren’t all there, What other factors should we be considering in those 2 particular genres I mentioned?”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:11:19 → 00:11:31]
“Video Game Genre and Depiction of Slavery: How did you decide to look into that particular area as far as how slavery or the Haitian revolution is depicted?”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:16:16 → 00:16:23]
“Robert Topplin’s Three Levels of Film Analysis: ‘Analyzing the Content, Reception, and Behind-the-Scenes Debates'”
Quote: “The three levels of film analysis by Robert Topplin – analyzing the content of a film, examining its reception, and delving into the behind-the-scenes debates during production – greatly informed my book, Slave Revolt on Screen.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:19:53 → 00:19:56]
Top 5: “Chris Rock directed a movie called Top 5 in which his character Andre had a passion project about the Haitian revolution, and he couldn’t get that movie made.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:25:08 → 00:25:16]
Ideal Epic Film about the Haitian Revolution: “Imagine Haitian filmmakers having an unlimited budget to make, you know, the ideal epic film about the Haitian revolution.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:29:58 → 00:30:10]
“Slave Revolt on the Screen: ‘You broke so many new grounds.'”
“I still have so much more to say about this topic. There are additional materials that would definitely merit a sequel. The story is not done yet.”
— Patrick Jean-Baptiste [00:32:44 → 00:32:48]
- In the episode, Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall discusses the importance of video games as sites of memory for how slavery is remembered. What are your thoughts on this perspective? Do you agree that video games can offer valuable insights into historical events like the Haitian Revolution?
- The speaker mentions the erasure of Haiti in the educational system and how it continues to affect the film industry. Why do you think there is a reluctance to greenlight films about African-descended people rising up as revolutionaries? How does this reluctance reflect deeper issues within the film industry?
- One of the key contradictions highlighted in the episode is the French claim of being the creators of modern ideas of Universalism while still maintaining slavery. How does this contradiction impact the perception of the French Revolution and its ideals? What role did the Haitian Revolution play in challenging this perception?
- The speaker discusses the process of simplification and collapsing in historical films, where multiple characters are merged into one “Every man” character. What are your thoughts on this process? Do you believe it is a necessary compromise for storytelling purposes, or does it detract from the accuracy and complexity of historical events?
- Dr. Sepinwall emphasizes the importance of accuracy in avoiding the distortion of the past, but also mentions that minor details like dates or names may not be as crucial. How do you personally prioritize accuracy when watching films or playing video games based on historical events? What aspects do you believe are more important to capture faithfully?
- The speaker mentions the film “Lydia Bailey” as a forgotten Hollywood production about the Haitian Revolution. Why do you think this film fell off the map and is not widely known? In what ways does the lack of availability and knowledge of such films shape our understanding of historical events?
- The episode highlights the resilience of Haitian cinema, with mentions of young Haitian filmmakers like Maxence Denis, Kendi Veriluz, and Pierre Lucson Bellegarde. How do you think these filmmakers contribute to the representation and preservation of the Haitian Revolution in cinema? How does their perspective differ from mainstream Western films on the topic?
- The speaker expresses their excitement over the possibility of a new project about the Haitian Revolution by filmmaker Raul Peck. What qualities do you believe make Peck a model historical filmmaker? How has his previous work, such as the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” showcased his ability to capture the essence of a time period?
- Dr. Sepinwall discusses the presence of games about slavery created in the 1980s by Martinique intellectuals, which had not been studied by historians. Why do you think historians tend to avoid studying games about slavery? How can analyzing these games contribute to our understanding of historical events and their cultural impact?
- The episode delves into the concept of films and video games as “sites of memory” for how slavery is remembered. How do you define a “site of memory,” and why do you think it is important to examine various mediums, such as films and video games, through this lens? In what ways do these mediums shape our collective memory and understanding of historical events?