Under the banner “Looking Back, Looking Forward: 20 Years of the New York African Film Festival”, the 2013 edition of the NYAFF is dedicated to celebrating half a century of African cinema and two decades of work that introduces American audiences to the best of this cinema and its leading characters.
On Sunday April 7th, Haiti took center stage to depict the life of one particular protagonist, many of whom know close to nothing about, Toussaint Louverture. To commemorate the day of such an extraordinary leader’s death, famed Hollywood actor Jimmy Jean-Louis was on deck to introduce the remarkable biopic –– interwoven with the fabrics of creative license –– based on the Haitian revolutionary who led the successful struggle for freedom against the French, consequently marking Haiti the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the first black-led republic in the world.
Jimmy Jean-Louis, who’s nicknamed “Haiti’s Hero,” had the esteemed privilege –– as he so eloquently explains –– of playing the character of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The multi-lingual actor strapped on his boots to play the rebel leader that forever changed the face of both Haiti and all of the Caribbean. Albeit, many people do not know who Toussaint was, or that Haiti was even the first black republic to acquire independence, it’s exactly this state that Jimmy wishes to alter by bringing the film Toussaint Louverture to as many countries, schools and libraries as possible.
A multifaceted thespian of many endeavors, including his non-profit foundation Hollywood Unites for Haiti, Jimmy Jean-Louis sat down with us as we delved into the undertaking of his emulation of the great Toussaint Louverture and, further, what it’s like to be a native Haitian in Hollywood today.
Tell us a little bit about your role as Toussaint Louverture, who was a fairly cut-throat leader in the Haitian Revolution… What did it mean to you to be able to characterize Toussaint?
I should start by saying that it was an honor to play him because I consider him to be one of the most important leaders that we’ve had in the past 200 years. Black or white. I’m talking about world leaders. So it was an honor to play him, to know that he has been the inspiration of many other great leaders––the likes of Mandela, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey. But unfortunately, nobody knew who he was. Few people know who Toussaint Louverture is. So to be able to give him to as many people as possible was very important to me.
Playing him, did it change you in any way?
I can’t say that it changed me. It added something in me; I can’t describe exactly what it is. But at the same time, whatever it is, it equals some kind of responsibility to continue some of the work that Toussaint has done himself. Because of the movie, I had a chance to travel across the world to promote him and to promote Haiti. The more you do it, the more it becomes part of yourself as well. Understand, it’s not the first time I’m playing some kind of ambassador for Haiti. When I was playing the Haitian on Heroes, it was the same thing; it happened for four years and I went around the world talking about Haiti. So it added a sense of responsibility in me. A sense of leadership as well.
Being that this is for the New York African Film Festival, describe how different it is to play a role in this kind of movie than say from one of your Hollywood roles.
As you must know, we don’t have too many movies about our leaders. So automatically, that makes it extra special. In America, I’m not sure that we’ve had many movies about our heroes… now we’re talking about a story that dated back in 1804, during slavery. We’re talking about the man that gave the first black republican its independence against the great Napoleon Bonaparte. For me, this kind of movie means a lot more than any other movie that I’ve done in the past. By far. Because it is entertaining, it is pure knowledge, and it is –– for me –– a way to paint a different picture of the perception of Haiti, of Haitians. Because a lot of people don’t realize that Haiti is the first republic to fight for and win its independence. People don’t know that Haiti was the most important island within the Caribbean region. So this is the most important project for me, and probably the most important character that I’ve played so far.
What do you hope for this film to accomplish?
It is an eye-opener. I hope it will re-bridge the gap that there is between people–– the way we perceive each other, the way we look at each other, and in this particular case, the way we look at Haitians. I hope that somehow, by seeing this movie that people have a different reaction when they meet a Haitian. I really hope that it goes to as many countries as possible; to universities, schools, libraries and across the world because it has the potential to go across the world. Let’s not forget that the fundamental message of Toussaint Louverture was peace amongst all races. That’s really what he fought for. He wanted an equal world, an equal people.
You grew up in Haiti up until the age of 12. How has being a native Haitian affect you being a professional actor in Hollywood today?
Well, I also grew up in a lot of countries. Yes, Haiti first –– then Paris, Spain, Italy, South Africa, then England. So by the time I went to L.A., my mind was well educated, if I should say. When I started to knock on the doors, the first rejection is always because I was black. The second rejection was because I was Haitian. Because for some reason, there seems to have been some kind of propaganda against Haitians in some countries, including America. And this is something we can see in the coast of Miami. If we’re talking about the “boat people,” Cubans are being welcomed while the Haitians endure the stigma. It’s a stigma that goes with you a long way. People sometimes don’t even realize it, but they fall into that trap and judge you based on those kinds of stigmas. However, fortunately for myself, I have plenty of experience in my life that taught me not to give up. Regardless of what they say on the other side of the room. Yes, being Haitian might have made things a bit more complicated, but at the same time, hey––it makes me a stronger person as well.
You founded Hollywood Unites For Haiti in 2008. How is it being ran today, to what capacity are you hands-on?
I am completely hands-on. I created Hollywood Unites For Haiti just because. Even though I’ve lived in all those places I mentioned, I always make time to go back to Haiti. I’m very close to Haiti; Haiti is my roots. My parents are there, my family is there. I created Hollywood Unites For Haiti before the earthquake. Why Hollywood? Because at the time I thought it would be interesting to have all the Hollywood people to come together to try to put Haiti in the limelight, because nobody was talking about Haiti at the time I created the organization. Of course, because of the earthquake, everyone knows about Haiti now… I do a lot. I can easily say that 60-70 percent of my time is to make sure that Hollywood Unites For Haiti keeps functioning. It’s hard –– it’s hard to keep a nonprofit organization going. I’m definitely hands-on –– with funding, creating events, speaking about it wherever I go. And EVERYTHING that comes to Hollywood Unites For Haiti goes straight to the people, the schools, the kids.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a movie in Washington called One Night in Vegas. I have a movie that I am producing called Presidus. We don’t have a date yet, to start. Otherwise, I have a French movie that’s going to come out in. There’re a handful of other gigs that I will start filming starting May-June.