Friday, August 13, 2021

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall's "Slave Revolt on Screen"

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is professor of history at California State University San Marcos, where she is a past winner of the university’s Brakebill Outstanding Professor Award. She is author of The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism and of Haitian History: New Perspectives. Her work has been published in such journals and edited collections as Journal of Modern History, Journal of Haitian Studies, Journal of American Culture, and Raoul Peck: Power, Politics, and the Cinematic Imagination.

Sepinwall applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part of the chapter entitled “No White Hero, No Funding? Unmade [Haitian] Revolution Epics.” The page begins by recounting the well-known story of Danny Glover being refused funding for his planned Haitian Revolution film (which would have been a biopic of the Revolution’s leader Toussaint Louverture), from producers who asked, “where are the white heroes?” Page 99 then describes some less-famous attempts to make films focused on Toussaint Louverture by the legendary French Martinican director Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley & A Dry White Season) and by the French-Mauritanian director Med Hondo (West Indies).

This was an interesting test! Page 99 includes some material which lies at the heart of my argument, and thus is a perfect page to begin on. The issue of inequalities in film funding - who gets to approve films and who must instead plead for funding – is central to the book. I illustrate how unequal divisions of film capital (between whites and Blacks in Hollywood, between filmmakers in formerly colonizing and formerly colonized countries, and between filmmakers in Haiti and elsewhere) distort cinematic depictions of slavery. I note that, historically, Hollywood studios have greenlit films on slavery when they include a friendly white in whose shoes audiences – and the executives – can imagine themselves. Hollywood films in which enslaved Africans are liberated peacefully with the help of a white hero have thus predominated over those that show them rising up to obtain their freedom. Haiti’s Revolution has appeared rarely on screen in Hollywood precisely because it doesn’t fit into the kinds of Black History storylines that studios prefer.

In that sense page 99 is central to my book. On the other hand, it gives a false impression of Slave Revolt on Screen for two reasons. First, Glover’s unmade project is relatively well-known, while most of what the book presents has never been written about before. (In fact, I first wrote about Glover’s attempt 8 years ago, in my essay “Happy as a Slave: The Toussaint Louverture miniseries”).

Second, many people aren’t aware that there are films on the Haitian Revolution – or that Glover’s unsuccessful attempt was only one in a long line of such attempts by Black Hollywood legends, from Harry Belafonte to James Earl Jones. In that sense, page 99 distorts the book, which features seven chapters about films on the Haitian Revolution (mostly from outside Hollywood), two chapters on video games about slavery and/or the Haitian Revolution – and only one chapter about unmade attempts. Thus, if a reader only saw page 99, they might think the book describes the impossibility of making films on the Revolution – and not that it also describes a varied corpus of existing films and video games. Indeed, another feature of the book is that it is one of the very first about video games on any topic by a historian – something that is not clear at all from page 99!
Follow Alyssa Sepinwall on Twitter and learn more about Slave Revolt on Screen at the University Press of Mississippi Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue