Arnold Antonin’s new film “Jean-Jacques Dessalines, le vainqueur de Napoléon Bonaparte”, is a must-see for anyone interested in Haitian cinema or in the founding of the Haitian nation. It will premiere on February 23, 2022, at the Karibé Hotel
Antonin has made the very first feature-length Haitian film about the Haitian Revolution and the War of Independence—and the very first documentary anywhere in the world on Jean-Jacques Dessalines. At a time when filmmakers in Haiti and abroad have shown more interest in Toussaint Louverture, Antonin offers viewers—in Haiti and elsewhere—a complex look at the father of Haitian independence.
The film features an impressive collection of Haitian scholars and experts who offer a fresh assessment of Dessalines for the 21st century. These include Pierre Buteau, Jean Casimir, Michèle Pierre-Louis, Jean Alix René, Bayyinah Bello, Vertus Saint-Louis, Jhon Picard Byron, Leslie Pean, Gaétan Mentor, Marc-Ferl Morquette, Daniel Elie and others.
Antonin’s 94-minute film combines interviews with these scholars; segments with actors playing Dessalines (Hollandy Desrosiers), Boisrond-Tonnerre (Gaël Pressoir), Claire Heureuse (Esmerelda Milcé) and others; and innovative illustrations and animatics. The film also offers the sweeping panoramic cinematography and aerial views that we are accustomed to in Antonin films such as Ainsi parla la mer/Men sa Lanmè a di (2020). Jean-Jacques Dessalines, le vainqueur de Napoléon Bonaparte, Antonin’s newest film, draws upon a deep base of historical sources in combination with new assessments of Dessalines’ life and legacy. Antonin notes that the Haitian Revolution was one of the three great revolutions of its era (after the US and French)—but that foreigners sought to erase it from history, because of its taking “to their logical end the values extolled by others” regarding racism and slavery. The film surveys the Haitian Revolution and the War of Independence, while focusing on Dessalines himself.
As a scholar of Haitian and of Francophone cinema, there are several things I find significant about this film, alongside it being the very first full-length film on the Haitian Revolution by a Haitian director. One is Antonin’s combatting the idea that Dessalines “massacred whites.” As several of his interviewees explain, Dessalines’ army fought against their enemy, the French; they did not massacre all whites. Polish and Prussian soldiers who deserted the French army and fought alongside Haitians were protected by Dessalines, as were other whites. Secondly, and most important, even though Dessalines is often demonized by foreigners for his “brutality,” the film notes that Napoleon himself was far more ferocious; his fighting style was characterized by massacres throughout Europe. As Pierre Buteau (President of the Société Haïtienne d’Histoire, de Géographie et de Géologie) emphasizes, the French were fighting a “war of extermination” in Haiti; Dessalines understood that he needed to wipe out his enemies or risk all Haitians being killed. Third, several of Antonin’s interviewees emphasize the modernity of Dessalines’ 1805 constitution as well as his approach to military strategy. Where certain foreign scholars have talked dismissively about Napoleon facing off against an “army of barefoot ex-slaves,” the experts in the film emphasize Dessalines’ keen intelligence and his acquiring the best military technology he could to combat the French at the same level.
Antonin also points to gaps and evolutions in remembering Dessalines in Haiti. In the 21st century, Dessalines is better known by Haitians than Toussaint Louverture, a topic explored in recent films by Maksaens Denis, Kendy Vérilus and Pierre Lucson-Bellegarde. But Antonin looks at the way Dessalines’ “assassins tried to erase his memory” for forty years after his death, even while a large portion of the population continued to venerate him. The film states that Dessalines was the only revolutionary to become a lwa in the Vodou pantheon—an opinion not in fact shared by Georges Romain, a Vodou priest (houngan) interviewed in the film. But Antonin has told me that he loves including divergent views in his films, featuring interviewees who offer different perspectives from him as well as from each other, to create a “lively and subtle dialectic.”
Antonin considers successive reclaimings of Dessalines, in 1843, in 1904, under the dictatorship, and then again after 2000. Jean Alix Réné notes that, in the 2020s, we are living in a new moment of the reappropriation of Dessalines. These reclaimings have sometimes obscured who Dessalines himself was—leading Antonin to want to offer a complex portrait of “this figure who is unknown in so many respects,” “this victorious Spartacus.”
Another fascinating aspect of the film is its looking beyond the famous Citadelle of Christophe to the system of fortifications created earlier by Dessalines. Aerial photography, in combination with new research discussed by Daniel Elie and by Madsen Gachette from Marchand Dessalines, help viewers discover the extensive system of forts established across the country by Dessalines—which the Citadelle itself (whose conception was later expanded) was originally a part of. Drawing on contributions from Professor Bayyinah Bello, Antonin does not neglect Dessalines’s wife Marie Claire Heureuse nor Tante Toya, the woman who raised and protected him as a youth. Antonin has the actress playing Claire Heureuse read a speech from Fénélon, to denounce the hypocrisy and lack of morality of those eager for power (who are not, as Antonin told me, absent from our world today).
Like all of Antonin’s films, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, le vainqueur de Napoléon Bonaparte examines history as part of thinking about contemporary Haiti. “If Dessalines had not died, what would Haiti be like today?” the director asks Jean Alix René. Antonin also interviews Jean André Victor of MOPOD (the Patriotic and Popular Dessalinian Movement), and he shows images of contemporary mache pou lavi demonstrators with Dessalines’ bust juxtaposed over them. As part of trying to understand the origins of contemporary conflicts in Haitian society, Antonin also considers why Dessalines’ former friends and comrades betrayed him. He considers whether this might have been part of a “crisis of orientation” in a postcolonial society searching for its future path. Ultimately, the director and his interviewees explain, Dessalines successfully coordinated the staggering effort to defeat the French—but he was not able to manage the multiple fractures that remained in Haitian society after 1804.
Overall, Antonin’s film is a must-see for anyone interested in Haitian cinema or in the founding of the Haitian nation. While I hope that it will not be the last film on Dessalines, it is the historic first, after numerous failed efforts to make Dessalines films in the US and elsewhere. I learned a great deal from the nuance and detail that the scholars in the film give—as well as from being able to see, concretely and spectacularly, the fortification system that Dessalines began to build across the country before his assassination.
Antonin is correct to note that “the children of Haiti owe Dessalines eternal gratitude,” as do many peoples around the world. Indeed, as the film makes clear, in declaring independence from the French long before colonized peoples elsewhere, Dessalines established the principle—urgently necessary today—that every nation, no matter how small, should be free and able to determine its own future.
*Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University—San Marcos and author of numerous works including The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Haitian History: New Perspectives and Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games (2021).