African Americans have long been interested in Haiti.1 Decades before the so-called “Haitian turn” of the twenty-first century in US academia, African American scholars pioneered the study of Haitian history in English. In the Journal of Negro History and elsewhere, Mercer Cook, Rayford Logan, and others wrote foundational studies on colonial Haiti (French Saint-Domingue), the Haitian Revolution and Haitian independence. Similarly, in art and literature, Harlem Renaissance figures saw Haiti as a beacon of Black self-determination. As the first site in the Americas where African-descended people overthrew their white oppressors, Haiti long inspired African American thinkers.
Like their scholarly counterparts, African American actors and directors have sought to make the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) better known in the United States. Actor Danny Glover’s attempt to make a film about the revolution in the 2000s and 2010s is the most famous example. But as I note in my book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, stars including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, William Marshall, and Ellen Holly also sought to make films about Haitian revolutionary heroes, including Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe.
It has proven, however, much more difficult for Black artists to make films on the revolution than for historians to write about it. One factor is cost. With an epic film requiring far more money to produce than a monograph, and unequal divisions of film capital resulting from the economic legacies of slavery and racism, even Hollywood’s most important Black stars have been unable to greenlight their own films on subjects like Haiti’s Revolution. Another reason has to do with white producers’ historically limited imaginations in this regard. Glover was asked, “Where are the white heroes?” before being denied funding for his Toussaint biopic. And when Belafonte was asked to star in a remake of The Emperor Jones (which caricatured the story of Christophe), he tried to make a more respectful film on the Haitian Revolution. But producers told him that if he refused to play the part as written, “We will get a Negro star who will.”
Indeed, as scholars like Valerie Smith and Donald Bogle have demonstrated, Hollywood has long resorted to racist tropes in depicting Black life and culture. Smith explains that D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation (1915) had an outsize influence: the images established in that film were “reproduced throughout the history of U.S. cinema – types that run the gamut from indolent, subservient, buffoonish men and women to vicious black male rapists.” The challenge of getting producers to fund a film on Haiti’s Revolution has been exacerbated by the fact that this event doesn’t fit into the kinds of Black history storylines that studios prefer. Unlike the fictional plot of Django Unchained, the Haitian Revolution was planned by African-descended peoples without help from a white hero. Unlike the insurrection led by Nat Turner (presented in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation), Haitians overthrew their oppressors and forced slavery’s end.
Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood has not ignored the Haitian Revolution altogether. But given these inequalities, it is unsurprising that the only studio film set during the Haitian Revolution was penned not by African Americans but left-leaning whites. Fox’s Lydia Bailey (1952) was hardly the kind of film on the Haitian Revolution that African American writers have proposed—its protagonists were not Louverture and Dessalines but two white Americans falling in love amidst the revolution.
The story of why Lydia Bailey was made, and the studio’s insistence on centering white characters, is too complicated to detail here. But it’s worth noting two things about the film. First, Fox made it amidst a wave of postwar social-message pictures on racism. In 1947 Fox had released Gentleman’s Agreement, a pathbreaking film highlighting the ugly problem of US antisemitism, even among those who claimed to have opposed the Nazis. Fresh from that film’s success, Lydia Bailey’s scriptwriters Philip Dunne and Michael Blankfort intended it as a salvo against anti-Black racism. They made the Haitian Revolution analogous to the US one—instead of a savage attack by Blacks against French whites that US whites had long portrayed it as. This representation anticipated the Atlantic Revolutions scholarship by several decades. In the film, white protagonist Albion Hamlin meets Toussaint Louverture and decides that Haitian revolutionary violence against the French is justified. Learning about slavery, Albion tells a Haitian friend (played by William Marshall), “If I were a native today whose liberty was threatened by Napoleon’s cutthroats, I would kill every white man I could lay my hands on.” The film’s antiracist stance was also influenced by the NAACP. Working with Fox as part of postwar civil rights initiatives, NAACP leader Walter White urged the studio to portray the film’s Black Haitian characters respectfully while helping audiences understand Haiti’s historical significance.
In many ways, Lydia Bailey departed markedly from older Hollywood stereotypes. Many Black writers thus praised the film as a milestone in representing Blacks on screen. In January 1952, ahead of the release, Ebony proclaimed: “Negro history will be glorified in a major Hollywood movie for the first time.” Another Ebony article exclaimed, “For the first time a motion picture has been built around a black country with great leaders…. Never has a picture carried such a tremendous indictment of slavery.” In July, Jet called Lydia Bailey the “first picture to truly depict the bravery of Negroes whose love for freedom did not melt in the face of guns.”
However, the Black Press also featured criticism of Lydia Bailey. During production, a California Eagle editor heard rumors of an appalling scene (implying that Blacks and whites had different smells). She wrote, “Lydia Bailey may be giving employment to 180 Negro actors but [this] turns my stomach.” The writer asked how “an industry that doesn’t employ blacks as writers” could make “a sincere and sensitive picture relating to Negro life?” Walter White had a more positive view once he saw the final film (with that scene altered). He told readers, “I beg you not to miss” Lydia Bailey. Still, White questioned the film’s startling imposition of a white Baltimorean in Toussaint’s inner circle.
Overall, given the climate of the era, Black papers saw Lydia Bailey as a landmark. The Chicago Defender’s Marion Campfield joked about its “disdain for historical authenticity” but urged viewers to support it with repeat visits. Most crucial, she argued, was Fox’s treatment of “Haiti’s valiant fight to live proudly with sensitivity and dignity.” She praised the script for having Haitians exemplify liberty and equality, rather than the French. In the Los Angeles Sentinel, Hazel Lamarre declared, “Hollywood … has left itself open to criticism when making films dealing with colored people.” But she added, “‘Lydia Bailey’ is out of this class.” Lamarre called the film “inspiring.” A reviewer in the California Eagle predicted that southern whites would not like the film but that it was “the best to come out of Hollywood.”
Seventy years later, it is striking that Lydia Bailey remains Hollywood’s only film focused on the Revolution. Studios’ willingness to make films justifying Black revolutionary violence dissipated amid anti-Communist hysteria as well as white anxiety about the Civil Rights movement. The wave of better Black history films that writers hoped for in 1952 failed to materialize.
In the wake of Black Panther, viewed similarly as historic, will producers become more willing to fund films on the Haitian Revolution? There is certainly cause for skepticism. Chris Rock’s 2014 comedy Top Five chronicled a Haitian Revolution biopic that fails at the box office because whites are ignorant about—or hostile to—histories of slave revolt. Rock’s point is not yet outdated—white funders and audiences still do not seem ready for a story centering enslaved people who resort to violence to free themselves. Still, as Brenda Stevenson has predicted, the momentum from recent films and the growing clout of Black filmmakers may make it “difficult to turn back.” Indeed, a recent McKinsey report echoed what leading Black writers and producers have emphasized, that Hollywood loses billions a year by not greenlighting their projects. If studios are willing to listen, audiences may finally get to see big-budget films featuring the Haitian Revolution on screen, written from Black perspectives.
- See Millery Polyné, From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010); Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon, eds., African Americans and the Haitian Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2010); Leslie Alexander, “The Black Republic: The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Northern Black Political Consciousness, 1816–1862,” in Alyssa G. Sepinwall, ed., Haitian History: New Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2012), 197 – 214; and Brandon Byrd, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). ↩