No. 3

Visions of Liberation in Haitian Cinema

Tracing the memory of the Haitian Revolution on film.

Yasmina Price

Illustration by Mark Harris. Photographs via Getty Images and Anita (1982).

This is a vision for a film worthy of the Haitian Revolution. It would need to be made with few resources but many hands. For practical and conceptual reasons, it would take shape as some kind of documentary hybrid, not a fiction narrative. It would be shot right there, by people whose ancestors were once the participants. Inevitably, the film would invite censorship and repression, distributed clandestinely, every copy a bootleg. People would screen it in their living rooms, at union meetings, projected on a precariously hung bedsheet outdoors to have more room for an audience of elders, children, agricultural workers, someone’s grumpiest neighbor. It would last just long enough for the crowd to get antsy by the end. But after it finished screening, the life of this film would begin: after relearning their history, remembering that total transformation is possible, knowing that it has been done here before and that their struggle reaches to Palestine, to South Africa, to Yemen, to India, the people of this island created out of Black insurgency would once more riot for their liberation.

A shock to the system. “Unthinkable” before it erupted, the Haitian Revolution challenged the self-selected modern world at its foundations — enslavement, colonization, and empire. Haitian masses secured a claim on self-governance and ruptured the masquerade of Western civilization. The insurrection that began in 1791 and ended in 1804 resulted in the first Black republic, the only one created out of a slave revolt. The lifeways enslaved people carried with them from the African continent to the Caribbean propelled the rebellion. By remaking spiritual practices from their homelands, the Haitian Revolution began in the woods of the Bois Caïman, in Vodou ceremony. Because the brutalities of the world order it unsettled endure and are at this moment implicated in another surge of unfolding crises, remembering that burst of Black liberation on its own terms of autonomy, self-determination, and sovereignty is a task for cultural production and political education in the present. The ability to draw on long inheritances of struggle and ways of living is at the center of the fight to re-create the future.

The monumental shifts produced by an uprising of Black people who were considered property continue to be instructive. The Haitian Revolution interrupted not only the collusions of economic exploitation and enforced racial hierarchies but even the clock of Western civilization, set to a forward march of “progress” at the expense of the global majority. A Black rebellion too radical to fit alongside the so-called Age of Revolutions of the 18 and 19th centuries, it exposed the limitations of the Enlightenment principles that guided the French and American Revolutions by calling for an expansive framework of truly universal rights that had yet to be seen in modern political history. In his blistering 1995 book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot described the how the revolution “entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened” and was subsequently silenced in the texts of global history. Trouillot made clear that keeping the memory of the revolution alive threatened the dominant order and therefore remains an effective tool in the arsenal of liberation.

The battle for self-determination will always be fought over the terrain of memory — and cinema is well positioned to be the ideal vehicle for narratives of global remembrance. Highly transmissible and easily replicable, it developed as the mass medium par excellence, a popular form for the people that could overcome not only barriers of geography and literacy the way radio had but also linguistic differences. Yet there is still no cinematic depiction of the Haitian Revolution equivalent to its scale, one that could offer an adequate container for its active remembrance. The medium’s representational limitations are not the primary reason for that absence. A conspiracy of capital and empire, centralized in Hollywood, has made such a film seem almost as impossible as the revolution itself.

Neither the technologies nor the industries of film have ever been ideologically neutral. Hollywood’s monopoly has encoded white supremacy and capitalist interests, incapable of producing a work upholding an event that challenged those systems of order. Beyond its own productions, Hollywood’s hegemonic reach has created both a raison d’être and an obstacle for oppositional filmmaking, marginalizing or — more dangerous — neutralizing alternative cinematic cultures. In its own way, Haitian cinema has contested the same norms that the Haitian Revolution broke. Although Haitian cinema is of course heterogenous and multifaceted, one of its crucial stakes is a struggle of memory and the question of how to historicize and transmit the transformative potential of the Black popular uprising that created Ayiti (the island’s original Kreyòl name). A film does not a revolution make, but a cinematic rendering of that insurgency could be a formidable tool of political education. The treacheries of mainstream media and dangerous amnesiac policies of dominant regimes rely heavily on miseducating and severing people from their own histories of struggle. A film that restores the link between the explosive emergence of Ayiti and its present would serve as a bastion against persistent systems of subordination and dependency while also emphasizing the global stakes, as the same forces impede free peoples everywhere from being able to exercise their right to land and to life.

C. L. R. James rewrote the world in revisiting the events of the Haitian Revolution. The Trinidadian Marxist first presented this history in Toussaint Louverture, a 1934 play about the revolutionary leader, revised in 1967 as The Black Jacobins, a title shared with his monumental 1938 history, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. By centering the Black masses of Saint-Domingue, his work did to the writing of history what the revolution did to the possibilities of freedom. Notably, while James was working on the book A History of Negro Revolt (1938), an investigation of rebellion on the African continent, he looked back in time and across the water to the Haitian Revolution. Alongside fellow Black radical and anticolonial historians, he saw that the revolutionary path forward required an internationalist perspective and the teachings of the past. What was also an urgently needed labor of memory could be well met with a film.

Reading The Black Jacobins catalyzed American actor and activist Danny Glover’s more than three-decade-long attempt to put the Haitian Revolution onscreen. His efforts have ranged from obtaining funding from Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan president, to bringing in Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) as a collaborator. Glover even named his production company Louverture Films. It has co-produced such politically robust films as Concerning Violence (2014), a documentary inspired by the writings of Frantz Fanon, and The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), a chronicle of the rise of Black Power told in 16mm clips and interviews with Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, and other key figures. Perhaps these and other films Glover has succeeded in making indicate that his interpretation of the revolution would have been too subversive, which is to say too accurate, for Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, the American mainstream film industry continues to prefer counterrevolutionary fabrications of Black radicalism — see the Black Panther Marvel franchise and Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), among numerous recent examples. The Haitian Revolution has been impossible to incorporate into Hollywood’s ideological apparatus.

Other filmmakers’ attempts have gone further. The great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein planned an evolving film project on the Haitian Revolution with confirmed participation from the towering American radical actor and activist Paul Robeson. Eisenstein had spent years conceiving the project, getting as far as contracting a studio to produce a script for a final iteration to be titled The Black Consul. While earlier versions had been stymied by Hollywood, his came to an end when it fell out of favor with the Stalinist state. The Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo followed The Battle of Algiers (1966) — hailed as one of the blueprints of political cinema — with Queimada/Burn! (1969), which traced slave rebellions and freedom struggles on a fictional Caribbean island under Portuguese colonial rule that has been seen as a stand-in for Haiti. The Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cumbite (1964) conjures this history through the memories and life of its protagonist, Manuel, who returns home to Haiti after 15 years in Cuba. Based on Gouverneurs de la rosée, a 1944 novel by the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain that draws its title from a Kreyòl word for a community of organized labor, Cumbite shows Haitian peasants working together to find a way around a drought. The film takes place in 1947, the year the U.S. relinquished economic control of Haiti, with the full occupation having ended less than a decade prior. Although Haitian visual culture and art institutions flourished during the 1940s, in the wake of the U.S.’s imperialist policies the nation was left in the claws of predatory debt and increased poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. Many peasants had been robbed of their land, and Cumbite was an effective vehicle for centering and clarifying their particular conditions of subjection — and an important reminder of the capacity of rural populations to collectively self-organize and self-govern to alter their conditions, reigniting the emancipatory spirit of the revolution.

Although the global arena of anticolonial and anti-imperial filmmaking might have been a promising site for this story, there remains the fundamental problem of the specific obstacles faced by Haitian cinema, where the question of depicting the Haitian Revolution — and reckoning with Haitian and Black autonomy — is the most meaningful and urgent. While local filmmakers have engaged with the revolution, what has yet to be produced is a large-scale production similar to Eisenstein and Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s depiction of Soviet revolutionary history in October (1927) or Latin American works such as Patricio Guzmán’s La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas/The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of an Unarmed People (1975–79) and the Argentinian duo Octavio Getino and Fernando “Pino” Solanas’s La hora de los hornos/The Hour of the Furnaces (1968). Even if these are not perfect corollaries, the relative lack of corresponding Haitian cinematic productions reflect a particular set of racialized material conditions.

The 1804 birth of the first Black republic preceded that of cinema by almost a century. As noted by Haitian scholar Michaëlle Lafontant-Médard, the first imagery of Haiti to be filmed — by an Italian camera operator named Giuseppe Filippi, a representative of the French Lumière Brothers, commonly canonized as film’s inventors — was a blaze in the capital (she also draws a fascinating connection to the use of arson in the Black revolution against French colonizing forces). The Last Fire of 15 December 1899 in Port-au-Prince, reseen and relived two weeks later by a Haitian public who were subjected to only occupier films for the next decades, was Haiti’s cinematic beginning — but not on Haitian terms. As Mbye Cham explains in his introduction to the excellent 1992 anthology Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, the “dominant regime” of cinema in the Caribbean was not only foreign but “a derivative of the history of plantation slavery and Western imperial and colonial exploitation and of the resultant socio-political, economic, and cultural relations of dependency.”

As Cham details, Caribbean filmmaking reflects the region’s history of extraction and dependency. Immediately prior to being remapped as a Black state, Haiti was Saint-Domingue, a French colony whose coffee and sugar plantations produced enormous wealth at the cost of extreme exploitation of enslaved labor. The revolution interrupted this economic structure of capitalist accumulation — regrettably only temporarily, as the next century would see France extort a decimating degree of wealth as “reparations” and repayments for its financial loss. More of the same followed with the American invasion and occupation of 1915–34, the military facilitation of what was a bank-driven effort to exert another exploitative monopoly over Haiti. The production, preservation, and distribution of Haitian cinema have been assailed by the same mechanisms of political and economic predation that subverted the promises of the Haitian Revolution. The cinematic fate of Haiti is also linked to another significant historical episode: the Duvalier regime, a dynastic dictatorship of state terror and kleptocracy that began in 1957 with François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and continued with his son and successor, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

If the Haitian Revolution can be seen as the structuring absence in Haitian cinema, the Duvalier regime is a structuring presence. For 29 years, the Duvaliers’ authoritarian control of Haiti brutally met any opposition with murder, torture, and imprisonment; middle-class interests consolidated and class antagonisms heightened; land extraction and exploitation of peasants and rural populations increased; unchecked state violence weaponized gender; and poverty and economic disparity were aggravated. Both the revolution and the Duvalier regime are symbolically charged in Haiti’s history, with one marking an apex of self-driven liberation, the other a nadir of internal repression. Tracing these two acts through Haitian cinema offers a critical lens on a continuing collective struggle.

The antagonism between Haitian cinema and the Duvalier regime was almost total. For most Haitian filmmakers, exile was the only way to make anything, delaying and diminishing the possibilities for creating alternatives to foreign cinematic depictions of the country. Haiti and Haitians had appeared onscreen for several decades before Et Moi Je Suis Belle, the first full-length Haitian feature, was collaboratively made in 1962 by Jean Dominique, Edouard Guilbaud, and Michaelle Lafontan. Dominique, a noted journalist, made significant contributions to fostering an active public and cultural sphere in Haiti, including starting a ciné-club in the 1960s. He was the founder of Radio Haiti-Inter, the country’s first independent station, serving the needs of everyday Haitians by offering news as well as informal political education in Kreyòl. Creating a bastion of Haitian linguistic autonomy was an important political assertion as well as a practical measure, given that a majority of the population was neither French-speaking nor literate. Radio Haiti-Inter began operating in 1957 — not coincidentally, the same year François Duvalier was elected president.

The island’s filmmaking toggled between emancipatory impulses and repressive mechanisms. Among the most relentless critics of the dictatorships is Arnold Antonin, a pillar of Haitian cinema. Born in 1942 and politically engaged throughout his career, he spent years in exile, moving among Italy, France, and Venezuela. In a 2008 article in Small Axe, Antonin wrote that during the Duvalier period, “there was strict surveillance of films shown for fear that they might express subversive ideas,” reducing cinematic production. Only after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s reign ended in 1986 was Antonin able to return to the island, and even then the threat of violence remained live: Dominique was assassinated in 2000, almost certainly as retribution for his politicized cultural activities. The end of the Duvalier era was the beginning of what Antonin and the writer Joël Lorquet called a “new militant Haitian cinema” freed from strict censorship. He explained how what had been primarily documentary production extended into more fictional works, with material support coming from external funding.

Often working in exile, many Haitian filmmakers, artists, and scholars have been steadfast in resisting both domestic repression and the pressures of the dominant Euro-American cultural industries. These same mechanisms have impacted the preservation, distribution, and exhibition of Haitian films locally and abroad. In the diaspora, crucial efforts have come through organizations such as the Haiti Cultural Exchange and CUNY Haitian Studies Institute in New York, and this essay itself was written in conjunction with a film series, Struggle of Memory: Forgetting Haiti, Remembering Ayiti, at Anthology Film Archives. In her introduction to the anthology The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (2001), the celebrated Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat (who participated in an opening conversation for the series) describes a collaborative project about the history of Haitian cinema undertaken with Dominique, her friend and mentor, and the American filmmaker Jonathan Demme, whose work includes Haiti: Dreams of Democracy (1988) and The Agronomist, a 2003 documentary about Dominique’s life co-produced by Danticat. She writes:

Every week, the three of us would meet on the Ramapo College campus to discuss Haitian cinema while some communications students watched and videotaped us. My job was to find prints of the films that we would discuss; Jean’s was to help us all understand them by putting them in context as Jonathan questioned him about technique, style, and content.

The task of finding the films proved to be a herculean one. Many of the filmmakers themselves had lost track of their own prints during nomadic lives in exile under the Duvalier regime. However, in our videotaped sessions each time we would mention a film title to Jean he would proceed to describe at length not only the plot of the film, but details of the method of its distribution and the political framework surrounding it.

Although their project was never completed, Danticat here justifies the value of such efforts, as well as the role of oral transmission in Dominique sharing knowledge that had never been written down. Marginalized film cultures have long needed to create their own cinematic histories, theories, and archives outside the Euro-American framework. Exemplary among them was Third Cinema — named by Solanas and Getino in a manifesto written after their experience of making La hora de los hornos — which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and developed an aesthetic and political project of reconfiguring film against the domination of the ugly trio that is colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Overlapping in places with Third Cinema, African filmmaking of the same era was likewise an intensive effort to claim autonomy. One of the earliest African continental filmmakers, the Beninese Senegalese Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, was also the first significant historian and theorist of African cinema — and his work was anchored in a collective drive to mobilize cultural production toward decolonization.

On similar terms, Antonin’s cinema has remained committed to a historiographic work of witnessing and educating, foregrounding everyday Haitians and the needs of collective remembrance, working toward a democratization of knowledge and presenting a corrective to the stranglehold of the dictatorships. Across an astounding filmography of over 50 works, mostly documentaries, he has created an audiovisual people’s history of Haiti. His first cinematic credit was a work made through L’Organisation Révolutionnaire 18 Mai, a clandestine group that took its name from the symbolically charged date commemorating the revolutionary Haitian flag’s creation in 1803. Duvalier accusé/Duvalier Accused (1973) is a 20-minute black-and-white documentary about the accusations presented by the Haitian delegate to the second Russell Tribunal, a reckoning with human rights violations in Latin America that took place over three sessions between 1974 and 1976.

Antonin went on to make what might be the closest to a magnum opus on the Haitian Revolution that exists, Ayiti men chimin libete/Haiti: The Way to Freedom (1974). Using a wide historical lens that follows the island’s trajectory from that 18th-century cataclysm through the counter-episode of the Duvalier regime, the film follows the Haitian people’s explosive liberatory emergence and unfinished journey to self-rule. Created with a pedagogical mission, the film presents Haitian history up until the point of its own creation, a comprehensive overview of revolution and counterrevolution; liberatory ruptures and attempts to repress them; class struggle and state violence; uprisings of exploited workers, peasants, and the poor; and tactics of renewed control. Antonin has described Ayiti men chimin libete in five acts: (1) an overview of the history of the island from the arrival of Columbus to François Duvalier, (2) Papa Doc’s reign, (3) Baby Doc’s reign, (4) an examination of this dual dynasty, and (5) an analysis of oppositional forces and the anti-Duvalier front. While committed to the truncated promise of the Haitian Revolution, this internationally screened and celebrated film largely deals with the Duvalier era, rather than being a vehicle to memorialize 1804 specifically.

Ayiti men chimin libete shares Third Cinema’s commitments to political purpose and cultural warfare to the point that it could be classified as a part of that neighboring tradition. Linguistic autonomy also links Antonin’s films to the anticolonial efforts of continental African cinema. When in 1968 Ousmane Sembène made Mandabi in Wolof and the Nigerien director Oumarou Ganda made Cabascabo in the Zarma language, they challenged the linguistic paternalism and forced homogeneity that had been an integral tool of colonization. The original Kreyòl voiceover for Ayiti men chimin libete was also quickly translated into French, Spanish, English, Italian, and German so that the film could circulate across the globe as liberatory propaganda. The ending title card — white Kreyòl text against a black background — states the film’s mission in unambiguous terms that wink at Marx’s Thesis Eleven:

This film may be used in the anti-Duvalier struggle by anyone, with due credit to the makers. This film sets out to expose to Haitians what happens and what has happened in their country, in order to change things. This is an appeal to all that they unite to crush the criminal and depraved Duvalier dynasty. Finally, it tries to inform other peoples about the continued struggle of the Haitian people against local and foreign exploitation.

The revolution made thinkable the exercise of Haitian and Black sovereignty — of ownership over history, testifying to the capabilities of the masses to determine their own fate. Antonin helped secure a sense of continuity between different phases in the ongoing struggle for self-determination by making cinema its memory and its medium. He also expressed his commitment to Haitian liberation and the inheritance of the revolution by sustaining autonomous cultural spaces among his fellow Haitians, including the Centre Pétion-Bolivar, which Antonin founded and directed for 34 years until its closure in 2020.

Raoul Peck, the most widely known Haitian filmmaker, shares Antonin’s commitment to demystifying history. Peck also lived in exile, leaving Haiti during François Duvalier’s reign and spending his childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his family arrived shortly after Patrice Lumumba’s assassination (he would later make two works about the Congolese independence leader). He made his first feature, Haitian Corner, in 1987, which reckoned with the dictatorships, picking up Antonin’s mantle in tracing the arc of Black struggles for sovereignty against empire and colonization. Haitian Corner follows Joseph Bossuet (Patrick Rameau), an exiled Haitian activist and poet who was tortured under the Duvalier regime and works in a factory in New York. Peck’s cinematic archaeology of the Duvalier terror was informed by an anticolonial, Marxist-inflected position that emerges most clearly in a documentary he made a few years later, Le Profit et rien d’autre!/Profit and Nothing But! (2001). Across a montage of interviews and stock footage weaving through different parts of Haiti and Euro-American metropolises, Peck’s voiceover choreographs these dislocations into an astute critique of globalization and capital.

L’Homme sur le quais/The Man on the Shore (1993), Peck’s third feature, centers on an eight-year-old left in the care of her grandmother when her parents flee Papa Doc’s regime. Its focus on a young girl’s experience echoes the earlier Anita (1980), by the Marxist poet Rassoul Labuchin, another central figure in Haitian cinema. Labuchin’s eponymous protagonist is a 14-year-old peasant girl drafted into exploitative servitude as a housekeeper for Madame Baptiste, whose daughter, Choupette, is the same age. Anita is caught in a brutal situation of child labor while Choupette is far more fortunate and able to go to school. The story can be interpreted as a critique of U.S. imperialism, positioning the servitude forced on Anita and the intractable dependency imposed on both as corollaries to the foreign power’s damaging effects on Haiti. Anita and Choupette are both given interior lives and dignity, and they exercise a rebellious solidarity on an intimate level. Lafontant-Médard calls Anita a “turning point” in Haitian cinematic history, because Labuchin ensured his otherwise censored film circulated in and engaged with “emerging labor movements, cooperatives, and community, neighborhood, and youth organizations,” reaching both urban and rural masses, rather than being distributed according to commercial motivations alone. Lafontant-Médard describes the discussions that followed the screenings:

The debates represented a unique opportunity to spotlight the Haitian public’s ardent desire to be involved. A vast majority of the audiences readily came up with a wide range of comments, questions, and suggestions. Some delivered eloquent pleas for justice and freedom. I recall the poignant comment made by a group of workers who were invited along with some intellectuals to view the film. They said: “We are those people dragging their wheelbarrows bearing the plate No. 1804! We, the exploited modern slaves who carry the burden of society on our weak shoulders. We really do not understand why some of the intellectuals present here went off on long discourses with very little substance and ended up saying nothing at all.”

Joining other Haitian cultural efforts to assert linguistic self-determination with its Kreyòl dialogue, Anita was wildly popular at home, feted by media and audiences. Labuchin enacted a key mandate of Third Cinema by promoting active forms of spectatorship and politicized engagement.

At the end of his phenomenal 2017 dissertation, “‘I Wait for Me’: Visualizing the Absence of the Haitian Revolution in Cinematic Text,” the Haitian Canadian scholar Jude Ulysse quotes Clyde Taylor, the sorely missed cultural historian and scholarly custodian of Black cinema and aesthetics, in writing, “I call for a cinematic text that concerns itself with ‘making a break from the repressive doctrine of aesthetics’ or ‘from the seductions of first-world ideology.’ ... This entails new modes of narration that can articulate the complicated material, psycho-historical and political existence of Haiti and its people.”

These are the current stakes of Haitian cinema in the centuries after the revolution. The island has seen ceaseless cycles of intervention, occupation, extractive philanthropic aid, and economic predation. These incursions have continued in various guises, such as the United Nations Security Council’s October 2023 approval of the deployment of a multinational military effort — including Kenyan police forces — with the pretext of addressing gang violence. Both U.S. and UN interventions have consistently harmed more than helped.

Making a way out of no way. That axiom has defined much of Haitian cinema. Filmmakers have engineered representational spaces that are porous and mobile, engaging historical fragmentations and reassembling them in the present. With everything leveled against it, Haitian cinema has still managed to offer much that meets the needs of remembrance and histories from below, recording and legitimizing the political actions and consciousness that were not foreclosed by the aftermath of the revolution or by the Duvalier terror. Films such as Antonin’s Ayiti men chimin libete have functioned as a cultural motor of a Black political struggle over the right to remake Haiti as a sovereign space, while the numerous films that Haitians have made about the Duvalier period have assembled an urgently needed collective cultural memory. The political education and cultural engagement Dominique fostered, with such crucial collaborators as Danticat, are the sorts of communal efforts in need of support and renewal.

These experiments in liberatory cultural production are both a wellspring to draw from and a reminder that the future of Haitian film production is part of the unfinished business of the Haitian Revolution. Haitian cinema cannot be free so long as the nation and its people continue to be preyed upon by the global terrors of American and European imperialism, transnational capital, and renewed forces of colonization. No more foreign funding of malicious fine print and coercively attached strings, no more being beholden to the terms of dominant audiovisual industries. For the dream of a film to honor the Haitian Revolution, we need another rupture of liberation. The story of Haitian liberation, as a practice of life and as a cinematic expression, remains open and unfolding.

Yasmina Price is a New York–based writer and film programmer completing a Ph.D. at Yale University. She focuses on anticolonial cinema from the Global South and the work of visual artists across the African continent and diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Her curatorial work includes programs at Anthology Film Archives, BAM, LACMA, and Light Industry, and her writing has appeared in Lux, The Nation, The Baffler, Film Quarterly, and the Criterion Collection’s Current.

Hammer & Hope is free to read. Sign up for our newsletter, donate to our magazine, and follow us on Instagram, Threads, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.


Previous Article

Next Article

More From This Issue