On January 12, 2010, a massive 7.0 earthquake centered on the capital city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti killed and maimed more than a quarter million out of a population of almost 9 million people. Haiti is a conjoint but economically delayed twin nation situated west of the Dominican Republic and one-third the island of Hispaniola. Invaded in 1492 by that lost Italian, Christopher Columbus, Haiti was colonized by France and under the brilliant leadership of ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803), won its independence in 1804. But the island has experienced a history of economic deprivation, environmental exploitation, and political upheaval, stemming in large part as retaliation from a western-based Power Elite. That anyone would now be surprised by Haiti’s current plight has probably spent far too much time buying into cinematic propaganda about life in the Caribbean.
Haiti was the setting for Peter Glenville’s The Comedians (1967), based on a novel by Graham Greene. Greene is probably best known as the screen-writer of Carol Reed’s magnificent, The Third Man (1949). The Comedians, not at all a funny movie, featured the acting couple of the day, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It also starred James Earle Jones as the revolting Dr. Magiot, a clone of Haiti’s brutal dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. Raymond St. Jacques portrayed the particularly nasty Captain Concasseur, a lethal soldier of Duvalier’s private army. I always thought St. Jacques, similar to Sidney Poitier (from the Bahamas) and Harry Belafonte (from Jamaica), had roots in the Caribbean as well (probably because of his name).
The various islands in the Caribbean sea located southeast of the United States and east of Mexico were drop-off points where African slaves were “seasoned” for plantation labor after (and if) they survived the dreaded Middle Passage. Today, these mostly black islanders are collectively referred to as West Indians and usually depicted as poor, non-threatening and care-free. Even the racially-mixed crews in Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (2003, 2006 and 2007) are deemed to be equal-opportunity thugs. Sport as the racial equalizer was also the message from Jon Turteltaub’s Cool Running (1993), with Jamaican youths aspiring to nothing more than winning a bob-sled race under white-male leadership. The Caribbean served as the exotic backdrop for several James Bond films as well; from Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962) to Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006). In Hollywood, the descendents of Her Majesty’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have evidently gleefully accepted the servant class status.
Other films however, such as Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005) and Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardner (2005), which depict the deplorable conditions in formerly colonized African countries, have been presented as consequences of imperialism. In Lord of War for instance, about European gun-running to friend and foe, black-British actor Eamonn Walker’s portrayal of the murderous African general, Baptiste Senior, rivaled that of Raymond St Jacques’ sociopathic Haitian soldier. In Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, David Harwood, another Black British actor, depicted the horrific local terrorist Captain Poison. Poison’s own self-description: “You think I’m a demon, but that’s only because I have to live in hell,” conveyed the reality of endogamous brutality as forged in the fires of internalized racism. Nevertheless, the film industry presents more of a sugar-coated image of the Caribbean, such as in Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s How Stella got her Groove back (1998) which featured the place as a happy hunting-ground for black romance.
Far more honesty about the region can be found in the small budgeted independent films; such as Perry Henszell’s The Harder they Come (1972) starring Jamaican reggae musician Jimmy Cliff. The movie was the first to be produced in Jamaica and it also introduced reggae to American audiences. The Harder they Come was made in the black exploitation era and showed the squalor of Jamaica’s shantytowns where dreams are deferred. Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases Negres or Sugar Cane Alley (1989) was set in 1930s in Martinique and more quietly, and eloquently, spoke to the inequities experienced by the island’s blacks. Comparatively, the big-money studios counter such consciousness with superficial films such as Carl Schenkel’s The Mighty Quinn (1989), where not even the magic of Denzel Washington as a riveting police detective saved it.
Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) reminded audiences about the African Diaspora being trapped in Rio de Janeiro’s terrible slums (favelas). But the industry by and large has not produced enough films which connect the African Diaspora to contemporary issues of inequality? A Trans-Atlantic slave legacy continues to underscore racial inequalities around the world, including the world of film, even as the unequal consequences of nature now being faced by the people of Haiti.
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