On 22 August, 1791, the first successful revolution by enslaved people in modern history began. Over 13 years, enslaved Africans rose up in rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. When the Haitian Revolution ended in 1804, the independent state of Haiti had been founded and slavery had been abolished.
The event sent shockwaves throughout the Atlantic world. Yet as Dr Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall notes in her book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitain Revolution in Film and Video Games, the epic subject matter has proven remarkably “radioactive” to Hollywood.
A historian of Haiti and of France, Sepinwall explained to History Hit how films have depicted the revolution, how their pop-culture portrayals of the past affect the way we understand it today, and how the same slave revolt has found an intriguing foothold in video games.
What is your background as a historian?
My first book was a biography of a French Catholic priest named Henri Grégoire (The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism). Though less famous than Robespierre, Grégoire (1750 – 1831) seemed to be everywhere in the French Revolution.
My biography examines his leadership in the Revolution, as well as his efforts to abolish slavery, eliminate discrimination against Jews, help the new leaders of Haiti, and other issues.
My second book, Haitian History: New Perspectives, surveys Haiti’s history from Spanish colonization until after the 2010 earthquake, including the effects on Haiti of international interference by France and the US; it’s especially relevant now in the wake of the new earthquake in Haiti.
More recently, I’ve focused on history and memory, and the differences between what we say about the past and what actually happened. As part of this work, I’ve been studying historical films and video games. My newest book is Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games.
Why has the revolution and its general Toussaint Louverture proved such “radioactive” subject matter?
Hollywood studios have often depicted Black history topics only when there’s a “white hero” in the story in whose eyes they think audiences can see themselves. This means that films about slavery often show suffering slaves waiting for a white liberator, such as in Amistad and 12 Years a Slave.
However, the story of the Haitian Revolution, of enslaved Africans liberating themselves through violent struggle, does not fit this mould. Therefore, there have been very few Hollywood films concerning the Haitian Revolution.
I have a chapter instead about the many proposed film projects on the Haitian Revolution, by film legends from Harry Belafonte to Danny Glover, which did not receive funding and were never made.
How does your book examine how economic legacies of slavery and colonialism affect pop-culture portrayals of the past?
It’s important to remember that even after slavery and colonialism ended formally, the economic inequalities they created persisted.
What this means in terms of pop culture is that the wealthy countries which made billions of dollars from these institutions generally have more power to create art and film about these histories – and to determine how these stories are told on screen – than do the descendants of people who were enslaved and colonized.
So filmmakers and funders in Hollywood and Paris can greenlight (or reject) epic films about slavery in Haiti and elsewhere, in a way that Haitians cannot.
The Haitian Revolution is a prime example of the way in which the unequal wealth generated by the slave system determines even now who gets to tell its story to the general public – or to keep the story off screen.
Of course, Haitians have also struggled to make their own films on the Revolution. But while films related to the Haitian Revolution by Haitian directors are fascinating and often have greater depth than those by non-Haitians, they’ve often been shorts or documentaries instead of feature-length dramas.
They also generally have not gotten a wide distribution. Many people who might like to see films on the Haitian Revolution do not know they exist, and they are often hard to access.
Meanwhile, there is still no high-quality epic film on the Haitian Revolution; the last time Hollywood made any film about the Haitian Revolution was in 1952.
Why was it important to look at video games as part of Slave Revolt on Screen?
I am not a gamer myself, but while I was studying the lack of epic films on the Haitian Revolution, I discovered Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, which centres on slave revolt in Haiti in the 1730s.
I realized that this game (made by Ubisoft Quebec/Montreal) was not an isolated case. Haitians fighting slavery have appeared in other video games too. Historical video games are a multibillion-dollar industry, and many young people today learn more about history from games than from films, let alone from history books.
I think it’s really important for professional historians to engage with video games and to help the general public know which games are more accurate and meaningful, rather than writing off all games as oversimplifying history.
Historical video games can be powerful and have emotional impact on players in the same way as historical epics do, while being even more immersive.
I am happy to see studios hiring historians to consult, and that some historians are starting to create their own game studios (like Adam Clulow at the University of Texas and James Coltrain at the University of Connecticut) to provide an alternative to games made by commercial producers.
Do video games follow the same tropes and traditions of cinema in their representation of the Revolution, and of slavery?
I found that in Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, the patterns of Hollywood films on slavery were absent. The game does not sugar-coat slavery, nor add in any white heroes; instead, Africans liberate other Africans from slavery.
And unlike Hollywood films, which often glorify white revolutionaries but rarely show Black revolutionary violence in the same admiring way, ACFC leads players to sympathize with enslaved people fighting against oppressive enslavers.
Though Hollywood studio funders often assume that such a film would not appeal to white audiences, the game sold millions of copies, to players of all backgrounds.
Beyond video games made by white North American developers, I also really wanted to find games made by descendants of enslaved people.
I was delighted to learn about Muriel Tramis, an engineer from the French Caribbean (Martinique) who was the world’s first Black woman game developer. In the late 1980s, she made a series of games about the slave revolt in Haiti and elsewhere.
Drawing on interviews I conducted with her as well as other sources, I highlight her video games, and I compare them to other films and games on the Haitian Revolution. What does it look like when descendants of enslaved people represent their own history in video games, and celebrate the ancestors who fought for their freedom?