Wow, what a film this is/was – one that I only got to see for the very first time at the CariBBeing Film Festival here in NYC, over the weekend! I almost didn’t make it, but I’m ever-so glad that I did.
Long time readers of this blog may remember Med Hondo, the Mauritanian director, producer, screenwriter & actor, who claims that Danny Glover’s Toussaint Louverture project is in fact based on his (Hondo’s) own original screenplay; it was in 2010 when we reported on the damning open letter to Glover that Hondo penned, expressing his concerns.
As a recap, the intriguing short version of the story goes… Hondo said he’d been working on a biopic of Toussaint Louverture when he first met Danny Glover in 1991. Glover, taken by the project, made it known to Hondo that he would like to play the role of the Haitian revolutionary in, presumably, Hondo’s film.
Hondo claims that Glover then paid for an English translation of Hondo’s script, before disappearing with it, allegedly cutting off all communication with Hondo and his co-writer Claude Veillot.
And thus, Hondo states that the film Glover has been trying to make for about a decade or more now, is his own original screenplay.
Hondo, by the way, is essentially one of African cinema’s fathers. His directorial debut, Soleil O, was made in 1967, a year after Ousmane Sembene’s first feature La Noire de.
Soleil O screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival where it received critical acclaim. He went on to direct some 10 feature films, and acted in 18 others.
And it’s one of the films he directed, titled West Indies, that I’m drawing your attention to.
The full title is West Indies: Les Negres Marrons De La Liberte (West Indies: The Black Freedom Fighters, specifically the Maroons). It was initially released in 1979, and undoubtedly was a landmark in African cinema; and it’s also a film that many probably haven’t heard of, and thus haven’t seen, but really need to!
Good luck finding it on Amazon, Netflix, or even Ebay. From what I was told, it doesn’t exist commercially on any home video formats; not even VHS apparently.
“I wanted to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American trade mark. I wanted to show that each people on earth has its own musical comedy, its own musical tragedy and its own thought shaped through its own history.” (Med Hondo on West Indies)
A project that took him upwards of 7 years to get made, it’s an absolutely stunning piece of work – a $1.35 million (about $4 million today) color musical epic film, made possible by an international cadre of investors – although much of it came from within the African continent.
And while I don’t have concrete evidence to prove this yet, I can say with some certainty that it was one of the most expensive African films made by an African filmmaker at the time, and adjusted for inflation, probably still is one of the most expensive African films.
Although the story it tells takes place primarily in the West Indies, as the title states, and France. In a nutshell, it documents the experience of black people, starting from the slave trade, to colonialism, to post-colonialism, to neocolonialism, and satirizes French imperialism in both Africa and the West Indies.
The fact that it was adapted from a stage play (Les Negriers – The Slavers -by Daniel Boukman) makes sense, because it’s filmed entirely on a stage set; I give the production designer mega-kudos for the work they did in recreating a number of different worlds all using the very same location and space. It’s impressive work, that doesn’t always appear to be happening on a stage.
It’s a scathing musical satire; avant-garde grand theater.
The film was released in 1979 in France, with Hondo a bit ambivalent about showing it to white French audiences who might not appreciate seeing themselves portrayed in an unflattering light.
Initial reviews weren’t stellar, not surprisingly, although it was reported at the time that black audiences loved and exalted not only the film, but also the Pan-Africanist spirit in which it was made – featuring a cast and crew from across the Diaspora.
Of course there was criticism from some black people, who didn’t appreciate the film’s satirical comedic and musical elements, which they felt made something of a mockery of the rather grave subject matter.
But it’s a technological and artistic achievement in African cinema history, and not even just continental Africa; the entire diaspora. And it’s a shame that Hondo is largely unknown beyond maybe academic and cineaste circles, and that the film isn’t widely available!
This is the kind of material that’s begging for a Criterion Collection revamp and release!
If it happens to be screening anywhere near you – more than likely at a festival like CariBBeing, or at a college institution, you should go out of your way to check it out.
I want to see it again, because there’s plenty to chew on, so that I can give it the proper review it deserves.
And after seeing this, no offense to Danny Glover, but I’d love to see what Hondo would’ve done with Toussaint L’Ouverture.
As you’d expect, there’s no trailer for West Indies; I couldn’t even locate a good still image to use at the top of this post.
This is wonderful African cinema history, and I’m always glad when I learn about films like this that I haven’t seen.
While a filmmaker like Lars Von Trier is praised for the minimalist stage sets he used in films like Dogville and Mandalay, here’s an African filmmaker who did something somewhat similar, except with fuller, more lush sets/production design, and, I’d say, done a lot better – and 30 years earlier, by the way!
And in a time when slave cinema seems to be all the rage, it would be a perfect time to restore and re-release West Indies.