It’s aptly cast, with pitch-perfect performances, and illuminates one of the many dark chapters in black history. A long-awaited two-part action epic film of the Haitian revolutionary, who led the only successful slave revolt in history, Jimmy Jean-Louis (“Heroes”), who stars as the title character, Toussaint Louverture, embodies the role, channeling and not merely acting.
Complete with English subtitles, the French two part drama begins with Toussaint’s capture in Saint Dominique, just weeks prior to his death in April 1803. Deported with his family to France, he is held captive and under interrogation at Fort de Joux. As he recounts his life, audiences are taken back to the revolutionary’s early years in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti) when he was sold into slavery.
“If only he could swim,” Toussaint recounts in an opening segment with a pained and sorrowful expression, as he remembers watching helplessly as his shackled father, who was too frail to merit a profit, was thrown into the ocean at a slave auction. Along with his sister, he is purchased by a plantation owner, and it is there where Toussaint is trained as a house servant, allowed to learn to read and write and finally freed in 1776 at age 33. Through his accounts, we follow his meteoric rise to general and governor, defeating British, Spanish, and French troops, emancipating the slave population, and overseeing the country’s initial attempts at reforming its political and social structure.
Full of scenes that catch the emotions by surprise, the film is nearly three hours long and Jean-Louis is onscreen for most of that time. He portrays Toussaint as funny, vulnerable, tender and enigmatic, and a man, whose extraordinary efforts at reaching across racial lines set him apart from his contemporaries.
A near perfect period piece, the stellar supporting cast is uniformly excellent. From Aïssa Maïga (“Bamako”) as Toussaint’s supporting wife Suzanne, to bit parts from French actor Stany Coppet as General Rigaud, Jean-Louis heads a first-rate cast in this classic biopic of one who overcame several obstacles to do something extraordinary.
Although it fleetingly touches on his childhood, the movie’s main focus is on Toussaint’s meteoric rise and his various conquests.
Under the excellent direction of Philippe Niang “Toussaint Louverture” lends realism, authenticity, and sensitivity without being excessive or overdone in any area.
A period piece that achieves its dramatic potential without sacrificing historical accuracy, the film belongs to Jean-Louis, whose fierce and ferocious performance as Toussaint will easily earn him numerous best actor accolades.
“Toussaint Louverture” is screening at the Pan African Film Festival. Visit http://2012.paff.org for more details.