Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that “the silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world.” Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall’s Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games (University Press of Mississippi, 2021) illustrates how this holds true not just in the writing of historical narratives but also the history of film. The book shows how one of the most important revolutions in world history, a revolt in which enslaved people fought for their freedom and created the first majority Black and post-slavery republic, has been silenced, ridiculed, or whitewashed by American and European film makers. She introduces us to Haitian directors such as Raoul Peck who want to tell their own story, free of white saviors but with the full horrors of slavery. The book takes some surprising turns. It turns out video games such as Assassins’ Creed do a better job at recreating the resistance of enslaved people than most films. Sepinwall also finds an unexpected hero in comedian Chris Rock. His Top Five contains a subplot about a fictionalized version of Rock trying to promote his film about the Haitian Revolution to white journalists who can't even understand the concept of a slave revolt.
Dr. Sepinwall, who earned her doctorate at Stanford, is a professor of history at California State University San Marcos. Her previous books include The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism and Haitian History: New Perspectives. She also has a number of articles in journals and edited collections such as Journal of Modern History, Journal of Haitian Studies, Journal of American Culture, and Raoul Peck: Power, Politics, and the Cinematic Imagination. In the interests of full disclosure, she is one of my favorite collaborators and we co-edited a volume of the World History Bulletin on France in world history.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018). When he’s not reading or talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.
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