Preface to Haiti!
I wrote this screenplay some years ago. I had always known of the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, but my active interest was awakened in graduate school when I came across Wordsworth’s stirring sonnet, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture.” I discovered that among the Romantics, pro-French Revolutionary sentiment gravitated towards Toussaint after Napoleon assumed imperial powers. Toussaint became, in their minds, a truer embodiment of the revolutionary spirit.
I began researching his life, and while accounts varied, he clearly assumed heroic proportions. Here was an ex-slave who rose to become the commander-in-chief of the French forces in the Caribbean, a military genius, a political and religious visionary. I am particularly indebted to the account of him in C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins. I was attracted to the tragic irony of his story. The fulfillment of his vision of a nation of black Frenchmen forced him to rely on the very people who would betray him, the French, on the one hand, motivated by pure greed, and the blacks, on the other, consumed by their justifiable rage at the crime of slavery perpetrated against them, the result being the sorry history of that land following Toussaint’s betrayal and death.
Toussaint’s greatness and the irony of his story raised that story, in my mind, to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. Presumptuous of me as it may have been, I resolved to popularize that story and write that tragedy. Shakespeare wrote in a popular medium for a popular audience. I theorized that if he were writing today, he would be writing screenplays since what is now called, the “legitimate” theater does not reach a popular audience. So a screenplay, I reasoned, would be the appropriate vehicle for that tragedy.
Never having written a screenplay before, I studied the format and then got to work. I imagine I violated many of the standard formulas for screenplays. One of the people in the LLC who eventually did option the screenplay complained that it reads more like a novel than a screenplay. If he meant by that that it suffers from too much continuity, then I gladly cop to the charge, since my model was King Lear and not Zero Dark Thirty.
A greater problem for me was rendering history, since history does not naturally dispose itself into dramatic units. When possible, I stuck to the historical record, but necessarily resorted to conjecture and, also, outright fabrication. Christophe was, in fact, originally a cook, but for a hotel, not a personal master. There was in fact a historical Thérèse, a great beauty who lived openly and publicly as the consort of her master. She did eventually marry Dessalines, but she did not have a romance with Moíse. The truth of the story lies rather in the faithful rendering of the historical irony of Toussaint’s tragedy, since irony is always the shadow of truth.
As I suggested earlier, Haiti was optioned in September 2008. A week later, however, the economic debacle hit, and the backers pulled out. Since a production is unlikely to be revived, I offer it here for your reading, if not viewing, pleasure.