It’s been three years since Jimmy Jean-Louis put Haiti on the Hollywood map with his role as The Haitian on ABC’s drama, Heroes. At this month’s New York African Film Festival, Jean-Louis will once again draw attention to the island and its rich history with his epic, award-winning turn in Toussaint Louverture.
The Haitian-born actor stars as the freedom-fighting revolutionary, whose military virtuosity led to the only successful slave revolt in the world. (Haiti famously won its independence from the French in 1804, and established itself as the first free Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.) EBONY.com caught up with Jean-Louis via phone from his home in Paris to chat about undertaking what he calls “the role of lifetime” in this highly anticipated biopic.
EBONY: Toussaint Louverture inspired many freedom fighters, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela, yet very little is known about him outside of Haiti. What does he mean to you?
Jimmy Jean-Louis: As a kid growing up in Haiti, we all learned about him. To finally have a chance to share that story with the world means a lot to me. I always looked at him as one of the most significant heroes in history of the past 200 years. Toussaint Louverture never got any real recognition for what he has done in securing the first Black republic. Haiti meant a lot to the history of humankind. It shook the notion of slavery! The country was also able to help America win Louisiana from France. This movie will help change the perception of Haiti. People need to look at Haiti’s entire history, and not just the earthquake and bad politics.
EBONY: How did you prepare for this role?
JJL: I watched a few documentaries and read some books. I spoke to many Haitians who knew anything about Haiti and him. I wanted to get a sense of what people really thought of him. The movie focuses on him from the age of 30 to 60, when he was a general and a governor. What he did required a great sense of leadership and vision.
EBONY: The film takes a look at how his views differed from other Haitian leaders at that time. What was his approach to freeing Haiti?
JJL: His point of view was not well understood by everyone. When he decided to keep the White people in Haiti, it was because he knew he needed them to keep the economy functioning. Most everyone else wanted them all dead. Louverture was much more educated and wasn’t out for simple vengeance. He had spent time as a French general and he was able to understand both sides. He was able to make a better judgment, and that was problematic for some other Haitians, but they still trusted him because he was a great leader.
EBONY: This movie was produced by French TV and aired on the France 2 channel. Danny Glover has spent the last 20 plus years trying to develop this story into a movie in America with little success. Why was this production successful?
JJL: It’s very difficult to get any movies done about Black heroes—Haitian or American—in Hollywood. The argument in Hollywood is that there is no market for those movies, and that is not true. French television understood the importance of this story, but the people behind this movie are from the Caribbean and the director [Philippe Niang] is French Senegalese. The French audience was surprised that there was such a man who was part of their history. Toussaint Louverture dealt with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles Leclerc; these are great legends in French history.
EBONY: Haiti was politically and economically ostracized after defeating Napoleon. Do you believe independence benefitted Haiti in the long run?
JJL: I can’t say it did, because ever since independence, Haiti has been going down. Was it good to do? Yes, it was necessary, because it helped reshape the world. Let’s not forget Haiti was the number one producer of sugar and the most economically powerful country in the Caribbean. If we have to compare that Haiti with the Haiti of today, you can’t even come close to comparing the two.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.com.