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New Book By CSUSM Professor Looks To Haitian Revolution On Film

 August 4, 2021 at 10:40 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The Haitian revolution that started in the late 17 hundreds was noteworthy for being the first uprising of enslaved Africans in the new world to succeed in creating an independent state. Well, Cal state university, San Marcos history, professor Alyssa Goldstein sippin wall has written a book called slavery volt on screen, the Haitian revolution in film and video games, KPBS arts reporter, Beth Amando speaks with the author about this often overlooked chapter in history. Speaker 2: 00:29 Alyssa, you've just written a book slave revolt onscreen, the Haitian revolution in film and video games. So to start with, give us a little introduction to the Haitian revolution and why it's important for people to remember it. Speaker 3: 00:42 The Haitian revolution was one of the most important events in modern world history, but it's often one of the least discussed or understood. So Haiti had been a French colony called Sandow Mang and the 17th and 18th century. It was the richest colony in the Americas that wealth came from growing sugar and coffee, which the Europeans made enslaved Africans do in a really brutal and backbreaking system of labor. So after the French revolution started in 1789 and French whites were fighting amongst themselves and slaved people in Haiti realized that this was a time when they could finally get their freedom. So the Haitian revolution broke out in 1791. By three years later, they had forced the end of slavery. Um, the leader of the revolution at that point was a man named Toussaint L'Ouverture. Um, and by 18 0 4, 10 years later, Haitians had won their independence from France after Napoleon. When he came to power, refuse to acknowledge that they were going to be free and tried to reinstate slave them. But in a kind of David versus Goliath, Haitians fought back against Napoleon's armies and won. And again, they became independent in 1804. This was the only slave rebellion in the new world to have been successful and resulted in a new independent, free country. So it's very important for that reason. And this had symbolic value for blacks throughout the Americas. Speaker 2: 02:13 And what prompted your interest in the Haitian revolution? Speaker 3: 02:16 I'm a historian of France. I had studied that as an undergraduate and in graduate school, the Haitian revolution was never brought up in my education and I started to discover it. I was in fact researching Jews in the French revolution. So this issue of minorities and how the French treated minorities, even though they declared all men are born and remained free and equal. So I started to look into the history of slavery, but mainstream scholarship on the French revolution totally ignored it. So in the 1990s, I was one of a group of scholars who started for the first time to say, if we study France and the French revolution, we really need to be looking at Haiti, Speaker 2: 02:55 Your book with a reference to Chris rock hosting the Oscars to his film top five. So what was his kind of influence on the book and, and the kind of approach you took? Speaker 3: 03:06 So we often think comedy is trivial or that Chris rock is just a jokester, Marty, the zebra for Madagascar. But in fact, he has been pointing out silences and the way that we talk about history for a long time. So as I was starting to work on this project and thinking about the general absence of films on Haitian revolution in Hollywood, I discovered his 2014 parody, top five, which is the story of what would happen to an African-American writer, director, comedian, like him. If he tried to make a serious film about the Haitian revolution, Speaker 4: 03:43 I wanna make uplifting entertainment. I wanna make like a bribe, like I'll probably want to make it thought provoking entertaining. This weekend is big opening today. You can see him play at the Haitian revolutionary duddy about money in his new movie uprise. Speaker 5: 04:01 He kind of runs through Speaker 3: 04:02 The book. And I note that I'm offering a serious analysis to compliment the kind of comedic treatments that he has offered of these Speaker 2: 04:10 Issues. So your booklets to a variety of ways that the revolution has been depicted and Hollywood has tackled it only rarely. And perhaps the most notable example was in the 1950s in a film called Lydia Bailey. So what was that about? Speaker 3: 04:23 I love discovering this film because the conventional wisdom is that Hollywood has never made a Haitian revolution film, but I found this forgotten film from 1952 from 20th century Fox that was centered on to white Americans falling in love in the middle of the Haitian revolution. And I was also able to get access to the archives before COVID at USC and in Boston and at the Oscars library to see the debates that were happening as they made this film, which was kind of an accidental Haitian revolution film, but Fox bought the rights to one of the biggest historical novels of 1947. They had not seen the plot at all. And when they read the script and they thought about it, they realized that this needed to be set in Haiti, which raised a lot of issues that they were maybe, and maybe not ready to be dealing with at that time. It was also part of this wave of social message films about race, um, in that year that Fox and other studios made, including gentleman's agreement. They were excited about this film and also nervous about this film. And there are a lot of reasons why now it's become obscure and no one remembers it. One is that it's not available in a home video format. Fox has not really been trying to make it available or remember, Speaker 2: 05:45 One of the things I love about your book is that you include video games. I mean, this is often a maligned media format, but you look to how the Haitian revolution has been depicted in video games specifically Assassin's creed freedoms cry. So why is this important to look at for historian? So Speaker 3: 06:02 I'll say first that historians for the most part have completely ignored video games. Many of us don't play them. And then there was this assumption that if film makes mistakes, that video games are even more trivializing, but of course the general public, especially the younger generation who love historical video games, they learn more about the past from these games often than they might in school and historical video gaming for people who don't know is a multi billion dollar industry. I was surprised myself when I first learned that there was a game that looked at resistance by enslaved Africans in Haiti, in the 18th century. One of my students told me and I was shocked. And one of the things I realized when I watched the trailer for this game, Assassin's creed, freedom cry was that all of the problems with foreign non Haitian films on the Haitian revolution were not in this game. I was born into slavery Speaker 5: 07:03 Deprived of any right of any faith. I was sold, treated for Libra. This game Speaker 3: 07:17 Led audiences to empathize with enslaved people. It did not whitewash the French slavery system. It led players to empathize with enslaved people trying to free themselves. So I thought that that was pretty incredible, but I think the game is also a part of this larger effort that game studios were working on in the 2010s to try to diversify games, knowing that gamers were not just white men and that it was important to tell other people's stories. This game represented an effort by Ubisoft to try to talk about different kinds of history, including a Haitian history. Speaker 2: 07:55 All right. Well, thank you very much. Speaker 3: 07:56 Thank you so much, Beth, for having me on the show Speaker 1: 08:00 That was Beth Armando speaking with author and Cal state university, San Marcos history, professor Alyssa Goldstein sippin wall. Her book is slave revolt on screen, the Haitian revolution in film and video games.

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Cal State University San Marcos history professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall has written a book called "Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games."
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