6-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​C​C​N​.​6​-​2​.11 | Robin­son PDF

Abstract | Invok­ing the past in film is a polit­i­cal ges­ture because it sug­gests new inter­pre­ta­tions of his­tor­i­cal events. French Caribbean direc­tor Chris­t­ian Lara por­trays the Guade­lou­pean rebel­lion of 1803 in two of his films. In his own words, he builds “a his­tor­i­cal fres­co” of the events, abound­ing with fre­quent changes of scenery, elab­o­rate peri­od cos­tumes, and a wide range of minor and major char­ac­ters through which he expos­es France’s colo­nial wrong­do­ings. He fur­ther ques­tions present French involve­ment in Guade­loupe. My aim in this paper is to demon­strate that his cin­e­mat­ic efforts, though crit­i­cized for their the­atri­cal­i­ty, under­score an urgency to cor­rect and con­firm the islands’ dis­tinc­tive and inspir­ing local history.

Résumé | Evo­quer le passé dans un film, c’est un geste poli­tique. Ce geste per­met que le passé soit lu et inter­prété dans une nou­velle façon selon les choix du réal­isa­teur. Chris­t­ian Lara, le réal­isa­teur guade­loupéen étudié dans cet arti­cle, représente la rébel­lion de 1803 dans ses deux films. Dans ses pro­pres mots, il con­stru­it « une fresque his­torique » des évène­ments, foi­son­née des change­ments fréquents des scènes, des cos­tumes élaborés et une gamme de per­son­nages. À tra­vers ses élé­ments, Lara expose des méfaits colo­ni­aux et il inter­roge l’engagement mét­ro­pol­i­tain dans son île. Cet arti­cle démon­tre que l’effort de Lara, mal­gré sa théâ­tral­ité, souligne un désir urgent de cor­riger et de con­firmer l’histoire dis­tinc­tive et inspi­rante de Guadeloupe.



Chris­t­ian Lara is inar­guably the most pro­lif­ic French-Caribbean direc­tor alive. He was the first French-Caribbean direc­tor and cre­at­ed the first film set in the Antilles, Coco la fleur, can­di­dat (1979). Already 24 fea­ture films to his name, he is cur­rent­ly in post-pro­duc­tion on his lat­est film, The Leg­end, which takes place in French Poly­ne­sia. With an earnest ambi­tion to pro­mote and dig­ni­fy Black cul­ture, specif­i­cal­ly of the Caribbean, he is also referred to as the Father of French-Caribbean cin­e­ma.[1] Despite hav­ing such a vast, aspi­ra­tional body of work in a field that requires more schol­ar­ly atten­tion, [2] Lara has not received favourable reviews in aca­d­e­m­ic film crit­i­cism.[3] In my view, this neg­a­tive crit­i­cism high­lights an acute con­flict between rhetoric and aes­thet­ic. That is to say, Lara has artic­u­lat­ed his desire to revis­it and val­orize Guade­lou­pean his­to­ry and to inspire polit­i­cal change, but crit­ics have not laud­ed the ways in which he has car­ried out these objec­tives. As a result, this Guade­lou­pean direc­tor con­tin­ues to strad­dle a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion in French-Caribbean filmmaking.

We must unpack this severe crit­i­cism: can neg­a­tive reviews be tak­en at face val­ue or is there anoth­er angle from which to exam­ine the films so as to shed light on the con­cerns over Lara’s vision and choic­es? Although his research sub­ject is dif­fer­ent, film schol­ar Bill Nichols offers rel­e­vant insight into this ques­tion. In his arti­cle on Iran­ian film, he exam­ines the crit­i­cal expec­ta­tions of non-West­ern cin­e­ma, argu­ing that film crit­ics who ana­lyze non-Hol­ly­wood film seek to recov­er “the strange as famil­iar” (Nichols 18). In oth­er words, one way crit­ics make sense of non-West­ern films is to find com­mon­al­i­ties in their style. To devel­op a com­mon crit­i­cal process to for­mu­late gen­er­al­iza­tions about for­eign films, crit­ics estab­lish a set of expect­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics for any non-West­ern film. Evi­dence of these char­ac­ter­is­tics is found in the film’s for­mal aspects, thus solid­i­fy­ing the “acknowl­edg­ment of an inter­na­tion­al film style (for­mal inno­va­tion; psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex, ambigu­ous, poet­ic, alle­gor­i­cal, or restrained char­ac­ter­i­za­tions; rejec­tion of Hol­ly­wood norms for the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of time and space; lack of clear res­o­lu­tion or nar­ra­tive clo­sure; and so on)” (Nichols 17).

One con­se­quence of this crit­i­cal strat­e­gy is that it engen­ders a sphere of expec­ta­tion for non-West­ern film­mak­ers. Crit­ics have cre­at­ed an infor­mal code of pro­duc­tion, con­sist­ing of, but not lim­it­ed to, the pres­ence of didac­tic, alle­gor­i­cal, and anti-cap­i­tal­ist the­mat­ic mate­r­i­al; the employ­ment of non-pro­fes­sion­al actors to cre­ate a more authen­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion; and the dis­missal of com­mon­ly deemed stal­warts of Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma (sex, vio­lence, expen­sive spe­cial effects, and the clas­sic hap­py end, etc.). Regard­ing French-Caribbean film, one con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the pre­car­i­ous­ness of Lara’s posi­tion has been that he does not abide by this infor­mal code. The pres­ence of West­ern-influ­enced tech­niques such as pro­fes­sion­al actors, ornate cos­tumes, and osten­ta­tious spe­cial effects tech­niques in Sucre Amer and 1802, l’Epopée Guade­loupéenne desta­bi­lizes assump­tions about non-West­ern films. Schol­ar­ly work must con­sid­er the crit­i­cal dilem­ma that the pres­ence of these tech­niques cre­ates. The present essay aims to pro­vide a new per­spec­tive from which to ana­lyze Lara’s filmic choic­es and explain his con­trar­i­an aesthetic.


Sucre Amer (1997)

Rather than per­pet­u­ate crit­i­cism of Lara’s films for imi­ta­tive ten­den­cies or polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect view­points, I aim to bring the com­plex­i­ties of his filmic tech­niques to the fore, demon­strate his fas­ci­na­tion with mem­o­ry, high­light his numer­ous socio-cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, and pro­vide an expla­na­tion for the the­atri­cal qual­i­ty of the films. Offer­ing a new inter­pre­ta­tion of Lara’s films exhibits their high­ly polem­i­cal qual­i­ty, the nuanced and intel­li­gent attack on racism and the béké soci­ety, and the clear, pur­pose­ful re-pre­sen­ta­tion of the past.

More than 20 years after the release of Vivre libre ou mourir (1980/81), Lara returned to its prin­ci­pal theme, the Guade­lou­pi­an revolt of 1802, in his two rel­a­tive­ly recent films, Sucre Amer (1997) and 1802, l’Epopée Guade­loupéenne (2005). Although Lara released these two films sep­a­rate­ly, they are styl­is­tic repli­cas, with con­sis­tent light­ing, dom­i­nant col­ors, and cos­tumes. The films part­ly fea­ture the same actors and set­ting and rep­re­sent sev­er­al major bat­tles, the rela­tion­ships among offi­cers, the enthu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Guade­lou­pean peo­ple, and the French deci­sion to send troops in antic­i­pa­tion of Guade­lou­pean resis­tance to the rein­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. Yet the films dif­fer in one sub­stan­tial way: Sucre Amer, whose title osten­si­bly ref­er­ences the entwined his­to­ry of sug­ar pro­duc­tion and slav­ery in the New World, does not focus sole­ly on the his­tor­i­cal peri­od of the rebel­lion. The nar­ra­tive alter­nates between three set­tings: the 1802 bat­tle, the mod­ern-day imag­i­nary tri­al of Joseph Ignace, and the delib­er­a­tions in the jury room. The tri­al involves addi­tion­al his­toric and invent­ed char­ac­ters and a sec­ondary plot­line that deliv­ers a scathing indict­ment of colo­nial France. The alter­nat­ing depic­tion of these three set­tings cre­ates a chrono­log­i­cal but dis­con­tin­u­ous and episod­ic nar­ra­tive struc­ture that con­tin­ues for the dura­tion of the film.

Dur­ing the open­ing sequence of Sucre Amer, Lara intro­duces this struc­ture and fore­shad­ows the con­flict at the very heart of the plot. First, he briefly films the Guade­lou­pean con­text pre­ced­ing the revolt. He begins with a close-up track­ing shot of horse legs gal­lop­ing through water. As the hors­es pull a car­riage, the slow-motion of the rac­ing hooves, with water spray­ing in every direc­tion, infus­es the moment with con­trolled urgency and sus­pense. This urgency is also con­veyed through sound; the extradiegetic rapid rhythm of beat­ing drums accom­pa­nies the images of the horse and car­riage. The sight of this dat­ed means of trans­porta­tion imme­di­ate­ly trans­ports the mod­ern-day view­er into the past and estab­lish­es the time peri­od of the pri­ma­ry plot.

To fur­ther illus­trate this time peri­od, Lara cuts sev­er­al times to young Guade­lou­pean girls danc­ing the menuet (min­uet), an ele­gant and for­mal French court dance that orig­i­nat­ed in 17th-cen­tu­ry France. Despite the deco­rum and ele­gance, this scene evokes a con­tro­ver­sial trend in Mulat­to soci­ety. The imi­ta­tion of French music and cloth­ing sug­gests coop­er­a­tion and sup­port of French rule and, by exten­sion, the enslave­ment of fel­low Guade­lou­peans. The melody of the menuet, lay­ered over the sound of the drum­beat, also has an under­ly­ing con­no­ta­tion that estab­lish­es a soci­etal divi­sion that dom­i­nates the Guade­lou­pean pop­u­la­tion: the drum beat estab­lish­es the Afro-Antil­lean cul­tur­al pres­ence and the menuet ges­tures to the influ­ence of colo­nial France.

Abrupt­ly, the scene changes when a gav­el strikes a judge’s bench and a jury files into a mod­ern-day jury room. The appear­ance of the jurors (fig­ure 1) indi­cates that they belong to dif­fer­ent eras and hail from a vari­ety of homelands.

Figure 1. Sucre Amer (1997)

Fig­ure 1. Sucre Amer (1997)

In the court­room, Joseph Ignace (fig­ure 2) is on tri­al for trea­son against France. The pros­e­cu­tion relates his three crimes. The man who appears before the court is called Ignace, a freed slave who has become a com­man­der in the French army. He is accused of high trea­son because of his rebel­lion against the Republic’s army after Napoleon Bona­parte restored the Code Noir, an edict deal­ing with slav­ery and relat­ed issues. He is also accused of estab­lish­ing a sep­a­ratist gov­ern­ment and of fight­ing France’s army.

Figure 2. the accused Joseph Ignace

Fig­ure 2. the accused Joseph Ignace

After the pros­e­cu­tor makes her open­ing remarks, the sound chimes in as the cam­era hits Ignace. The next image is a close-up of Marie, empha­siz­ing this juror’s par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance and respon­si­bil­i­ty in the rul­ing. The defendant’s lawyer, an old­er dis­tin­guished Guade­lou­pean, states that he will present “the same events but a dif­fer­ent sto­ry.” His open­ing argu­ment con­cludes with the state­ment that Ignace is the “vic­tim of his­tor­i­cal manip­u­la­tion.” This remark rep­re­sents the polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion of the film: an artis­tic ren­der­ing of events and fig­ures that will right the wrongs of record­ed his­to­ry. The final, salient words of the scene come from the judge, who instructs the jury, “A Man’s hon­or is at stake. You must clear his name or find him guilty. Your duty is to sep­a­rate the facts from what may be imag­i­nary to reach a unan­i­mous verdict.”

Hence­forth through­out the film, Lara con­sis­tent­ly jux­ta­pos­es past and present, des­ig­nat­ing the three key set­tings in the film: the recon­struc­tion of the failed Guade­lou­pean rebel­lion, the court­room where the tri­al of Ignace takes place, and the jury room where the eight jurors must reach a unan­i­mous ver­dict. The first of these set­tings depicts the ear­li­est eman­ci­pa­tion of the Guade­lou­pean slave pop­u­la­tion, in 1794. The French shrewd­ly enact­ed the eman­ci­pa­tion to encour­age enlist­ment in the fight against the British. Lara’s film shows the French arm­ing and out­fit­ting Guade­lou­peans and then returns again to the court­room where Ignace’s wife begins her tes­ti­mo­ny. Describ­ing the eman­ci­pa­tion, she says, “Whites and Blacks made peace, then we got to work…It was like a cel­e­bra­tion.” To present the eman­ci­pa­tion and short-lived cama­raderie between French and freed Guade­lou­peans, Lara inserts a scene in which Ignace defends a French sol­dier from a British attack and cra­dles the dead White man who car­ried the offi­cial eman­ci­pa­tion doc­u­ment. The French Gov­er­nor Lacrosse, who arrived in Guade­loupe with his aide-de-camp Louis Del­grès in 1801, had instruc­tions to rein­sti­tute slav­ery accord­ing to the French 1799 Constitution.

Flash­backs through­out Lara’s film demon­strates his broad knowl­edge of Guade­lou­pean his­to­ry. The flash­backs that con­sti­tute the recon­struc­tion of the rebel­lion are atyp­i­cal in a fun­da­men­tal way. In clas­sic nar­ra­tive cin­e­ma, “in its most com­mon form, flash­back is sig­naled when an old­er character’s mem­o­ry of the past leads to a cut to a scene or series of scenes rep­re­sent­ing that past” (Sat­ter­lee 64). For exam­ple, if an old­er char­ac­ter flash­es back to his/her life many years before, the direc­tor will main­tain the verisimil­i­tude of the film by ensur­ing that this char­ac­ter looks and behaves in a way that is appro­pri­ate to the younger age. In Lara’s films, how­ev­er, the char­ac­ters that appear in flash­back are the same age and wear the same attire in both set­tings: the 1802 rebel­lion and the con­tem­po­rary tri­al. Lara’s main char­ac­ter, Ignace, is not fea­tured as an old man in one era and as his younger self in this film’s flash­backs. In oth­er words, although the tri­al seem­ing­ly takes place two hun­dred years after the rebel­lion, Ignace looks exact­ly the same in either set­ting. In fact, every char­ac­ter is depict­ed as him/herself, at one age and with one appear­ance, whether he/she appears dur­ing a flash­back or in the con­tem­po­rary scenes. All char­ac­ters from Guadeloupe’s past that have been inte­grat­ed into the mod­ern set­ting of the court­room dress and behave as they would have dur­ing their actu­al lifetime.

This nar­ra­tive struc­ture enables Lara to edu­cate the audi­ence about the cur­rent preva­lence of racism. For instance, after a psy­chi­a­trist takes the stand lat­er in the film, Lara films the jury room where mem­bers delib­er­ate the dif­fer­ence between Whites and Blacks, par­tic­u­lar­ly White and Black men. The Black writer and head juror Pri­vat D’Anglemont asks Marie (fig­ure 3), the young French woman, to explain her opin­ion of the dif­fer­ence between White and Black men.

Figure 3. prevalence of racism

Fig­ure 3. preva­lence of racism

Racist state­ments also sur­face in the court­room when a self-pro­claimed eye­wit­ness named Duboy­er describes the Black rebels as zom­bies. He accus­es Louis Del­grès of com­mand­ing the rebels to burn every­thing and kill all the Whites. The jurors, in par­tic­u­lar Marie, take note in the delib­er­a­tion room that Duboy­er could not have seen any­thing. As Lara adds tes­ti­mo­ny from Ignace’s moth­er, Ignace, Rougi­er (the man who kills Ignace), Vic­tor Schoelch­er, and Empress Josephine, he con­tin­ues to cross-cut fre­quent­ly between the court­room and jury room to con­vey, in quick order, the jury’s respons­es to the wit­ness­es’ remarks. Although juries do not typ­i­cal­ly delib­er­ate after every tes­ti­mo­ny, this nar­ra­tive struc­ture over­rides real­ism to cre­ate a back-and-forth dialogue.

Hence, past events that come to light over the course of the tri­al have an imme­di­ate impact on the impres­sions of the var­i­ous jury mem­bers. Col­lec­tive mem­o­ry pro­gres­sive­ly influ­ences the opin­ions and atti­tudes of the jury. At the end of the film, the tri­al is almost over and the lawyers give their final argu­ments. The defense recounts the his­to­ry of slav­ery and the lack of offi­cial apol­o­gy from France. He demands that the past be “a clean slate…with above all a rec­og­nized importance…it’s our oblig­a­tion to remem­ber.”[4] The bat­tle scenes reach their cli­max and, in a flash­back to the end of the rebel­lion, the French forces defeat the Guade­lou­peans. Ignace is assas­si­nat­ed in bat­tle. Imme­di­ate­ly, Lara cuts back to the jury. The abrupt final shot presents silence in the jury room. The imag­i­nary tri­al iden­ti­fies the accused as a fall­en hero with a trumped up charge.

No ver­dict in the court­room is ever giv­en. Snatch­ing Ignace’s fate from the French legal sys­tem, Lara indi­cates that the jury, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Guade­lou­pean soci­ety, is respon­si­ble for his lega­cy. At its core, Lara’s film engages in this retelling of the past in order to demon­strate the hero­ism of Guade­lou­pean rebels, pro­pose a re-pre­sen­ta­tion of major events in Guade­lou­pean his­to­ry, con­demn France for its colo­nial­ism, and chal­lenge French involve­ment in mod­ern-day Guadeloupe.

In Sucre Amer, the mise-en-scène varies depend­ing on con­text of the two time peri­ods the film depicts. In all of the scenes involv­ing the rebel­lion, the mise-en-scène is a stud­ied appli­ca­tion of fac­tu­al elements—from loca­tions to cloth­ing, hair, acces­sories, and weapons—in a close­ly repli­cat­ed time­line of ver­i­fi­able events and prob­a­ble inter­ac­tions. In both the court­room and the delib­er­a­tion room, the appear­ance of the char­ac­ters takes prece­dence over the back­ground. Cos­tumes dom­i­nate this invent­ed space, an authen­tic and lack­lus­ter repli­ca­tion of a judi­cial envi­ron­ment. In every con­text, Lara pur­pose­ful­ly con­fig­ures each image in order to lay bare his polit­i­cal read­ing of Guade­lou­pean past and cur­rent culture.

From the onset of the begin­ning of the film, Lara’s care­ful con­struc­tion is evi­dent. The rac­ing car­riage, menuet music, and the appear­ance of the char­ac­ters com­pris­ing the audi­ence of the small out­door con­cert estab­lish the first set­ting of the film: Guade­loupe pri­or to the arrival of colo­nial admin­is­tra­tor Richep­ance. The ele­gance of the cos­tumes, the peace­ful­ness and seclu­sion of the set­ting, the choice of music, and the com­posed behav­ior of the audi­ence strong­ly sug­gest the Mulat­to population’s French tastes.

The film also ver­bal­ly artic­u­lates and visu­al­ly express­es the con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance of the rebel­lion. Dur­ing a recess from the tri­al, Ignace and his anony­mous lawyer stand face-to-face in a prison. With only two men in the scene, this image serves to define their pri­vate inter­ac­tion and the sig­nif­i­cance of this moment. In a tense con­ver­sa­tion, the lawyer encour­ages Ignace to take the stand. Ignace resists, say­ing, “I am not a hero. I am a Black man from Guade­loupe, that’s all.”[5] The lawyer responds: “For us, your tri­al is impor­tant.”[6] In this state­ment, Lara express­es the idea that Ignace’s hero­ism res­onates with liv­ing Guade­lou­peans because it sat­is­fies a desire for self-knowl­edge, cul­tur­al pride, and his­toric preser­va­tion. Essen­tial­ly, the lawyer is urg­ing Ignace to tes­ti­fy because it brings this hero­ism to life.

Yet, despite the noble mes­sage of the lawyer and the favor­able and detailed por­tray­al of the rebel­lion, mul­ti­ple tech­niques of the mise-en-scène could detract from a pos­i­tive impres­sion of this film. For instance, there are repeat­ed instances of end­less death scenes, exag­ger­at­ed dia­logue, grandiose per­son­al­i­ties, and overt sym­bol­ism. We must address the man­i­fes­ta­tion of these choic­es in order to make sense of Lara’s project as a whole. A crit­i­cal view­er must ques­tion the role and effec­tive­ness of such com­mon­place tech­niques in the inno­v­a­tive and intel­lec­tu­al frame­work estab­lished by Sucre Amer’s nar­ra­tive pro­gres­sion. There are two pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tions for these types of tech­niques. Arguably, in attempt­ing to bol­ster the emo­tion­al impact of the film, Lara has been caught in the trap of rely­ing too heav­i­ly on clichés. How­ev­er, a sec­ond inter­pre­ta­tion of the epic bat­tle scenes and dra­mat­ic act­ing views such inten­si­fi­ca­tion and excess as unmis­tak­ably con­vey­ing the hero­ism of the Guade­lou­pean fig­ures, ele­vat­ing the stakes of com­bat, con­demn­ing the French colo­nial empire, and attack­ing the con­tin­ued preva­lence of racism and colo­nial ideals.

When weigh­ing the dif­fer­ences between these two inter­pre­ta­tions, we can­not over­look one impor­tant fac­tor. Lara has been out­spo­ken and explic­it about his objec­tives in the film,[7] see­ing film as a way to influ­ence his­to­ry and shape Guade­lou­pean iden­ti­ty. The prin­ci­pal actor in both Sucre Amer and 1802, Luc Saint-Eloy, sup­ports this agen­da in a com­ment on his own moti­va­tion to par­tic­i­pate in Lara’s films. In his state­ment, he under­scores the con­nec­tion between the films and the con­tem­po­rary social con­cern of con­tin­ued oppres­sion in Guadeloupe:

We are proud of our past and it is for that rea­son that we want to revis­it it in order to build the foun­da­tion that we are miss­ing. We do not want the foun­da­tion that was estab­lished for us, but on the con­trary to con­struct our own. The fight we lead is in their heads and ours. It’s a ver­i­ta­ble pow­er strug­gle between the col­o­niz­ers and the col­o­nized. We are oblig­ed to speak about oppres­sion and the redis­cov­ered free­dom.[8]

These remarks under­score how delib­er­ate Lara’s choic­es in film­mak­ing have been. They sug­gest that Lara is per­fect­ly cog­nizant of clichés and their exploita­tion, but has decid­ed to use them to his advan­tage. Lara cre­ates film with a delib­er­ate­ly the­atri­cal mise-en-scène.

The the­atri­cal­i­ty in the film also empha­sizes the trau­ma of slav­ery and the vio­lence of the rebel­lion. In a series of scenes toward the end of Sucre Amer, Lara films an encamp­ment of rebels. Piv­ot­ing the cam­era, he depicts women cry­ing and moan­ing while oth­ers dance and eat. The film then cuts to Ignace’s wife, who con­fess­es, “I hate my col­or.”[9] She expos­es her back, hor­ri­bly scarred from lash­ings inflict­ed dur­ing her enslave­ment. Against the dark back­drop of night, her back is illu­mi­nat­ed by firelight—a painful sight meant to con­vey the suf­fer­ing of the Guade­lou­pean peo­ple and ratio­nal­ize their deci­sion to rebel.

On the eve of Ignace’s final bat­tle, Lara fea­tures a group of indi­vid­u­als who exhib­it a range of emo­tion­al respons­es to their dis­tress­ing con­di­tion. Ignace’s prepa­ra­tion for bat­tle involves the deci­sion to paint his face white, fol­low­ing tra­di­tion. With­in earshot of Ignace, anoth­er sol­dier reproach­es Ignace’s reliance on tra­di­tion, stat­ing, “Africa is long gone.”[10] In this mini-dia­logue, Lara expos­es the ten­sion between the reliance on African roots and the dam­age to these beliefs as a result of gen­er­a­tions of strug­gle and fail­ing revolt. To ensure that Ignace’s opin­ion over­rides this cyn­i­cal atti­tude, Lara films him as he quick­ly retorts, “Today we are reborn!”[11] By depict­ing a pro­tag­o­nist who asserts the val­ue of tra­di­tion, Lara demon­strates the way in which he imag­ines and con­fig­ures the pres­ence and sig­nif­i­cance of African beliefs amongst the rebels. This face paint­ing is anoth­er exam­ple of how Lara uses the appear­ance of the char­ac­ters to cre­ate mean­ing­ful visu­al sym­bols in the film. When the bat­tle begins, many of the fight­ing men and women have paint­ed their faces like Ignace, prov­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of African cul­tur­al influence.

Over the course of the fight­ing, a woman is decap­i­tat­ed. Her body con­vuls­es as her head rolls to face the cam­era in close-up. Spar­ing no grue­some cor­po­re­al detail, Lara pur­pose­ful­ly high­lights the sac­ri­fice of the Guade­lou­pean rebels. Ignace dies dur­ing this bat­tle and Lara then ends the film with a shot of the very somber jury. The usu­al­ly ani­mat­ed cast sits silent and deject­ed, clear­ly con­vey­ing their under­stand­ing of Ignace’s sac­ri­fice. The mise-en-scène of this shot epit­o­mizes the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of the entire film. Lara effec­tive­ly estab­lish­es that the rebel­lion con­tin­ues to have direct and unde­ni­able effects on mod­ern-day Guadeloupe.

In addi­tion, Lara adept­ly evokes the spir­it of the French Rev­o­lu­tion in the Antil­lean con­text. One exam­ple of this influ­ence is appar­ent in the deci­sion of cer­tain Guade­lou­pean sol­diers to con­tin­ue to wear the tri­corne, or three-cor­ner hat, long after their break from the French army. Oth­er Guade­lou­peans sport the bon­net phyrgien, a head­piece pop­u­lar­ized by French Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, though its first doc­u­ment­ed use was in Ancient Greece to dis­tin­guish man­u­mit­ted slaves. The Guade­lou­pean sol­diers even sing the Mar­seil­laise, the French nation­al anthem. The pre­sen­ta­tion of these cus­toms and sym­bols serves to solid­i­fy that the Guade­lou­pean rebels have adopt­ed the ide­ol­o­gy of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. This co-opt­ing is pos­si­ble because they inter­pret rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­o­gy as sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from the French state. Akin to a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non in Haiti, the main prin­ci­ples of the French Rev­o­lu­tion were a uni­fy­ing rhetoric amongst the col­o­nized, despite the nation being at war with the French state.

Hence, when Lara cap­tures a tri­corne float­ing aban­doned in the water after Ignace’s defeat, the mise-en-scène dri­ves home a key point about the rebel­lion and the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the style of the shot uncov­er­ing a mes­sage about the rela­tion­ship between Guade­loupe and France. Instead of using an eye-lev­el shot, the cam­era is held in a dom­i­nant posi­tion over the water and float­ing hat. High-angle shots often empha­size the weak­ness or depen­dence of the fig­ure fea­tured in the image. In this case, the high angle calls atten­tion to the fail­ure of the rebel­lion, rep­re­sent­ed by the hat. Fur­ther­more, because the hat serves as a dou­ble metonymy for the French Rev­o­lu­tion as well as the Guade­lou­pean upris­ing, this shot accen­tu­ates the fail­ure of ideals of the French Rev­o­lu­tion in the Guade­lou­pean con­text. Because the French army defeat­ed the Guade­lou­pean rebels, this shot also expos­es the irony of the entire con­flict. By select­ing very notice­able sym­bols of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and incor­po­rat­ing them in the appear­ance of Guade­lou­peans, Lara high­lights the unique blend of French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and tra­di­tion­al African ele­ments. The face paint adds to this effect.

1802, L’Epopée Guadeloupéenne

The film 1802, L’Epopée Guade­loupéenne does not include Ignace’s tri­al. Instead, the nar­ra­tive is a causal, chrono­log­i­cal account that remains strict­ly with­in the bounds of the 1802 bat­tle. Lara does not insert any con­tem­po­rary scenes, but rather choos­es to explore the events of the past in greater depth. His focus is on the lead­er­ship of the Guade­lou­pean rebels—particularly Louis Delgrès—the colo­nial antic­i­pa­tion of a rebel­lion, the arrival and involve­ment of French forces, sev­er­al key bat­tles, and the mass sui­cide orga­nized by Delgrès.

The film begins with the sound­track of instru­men­tal string music accom­pa­ny­ing a widescreen shot of fields and open road. Super­im­posed on the image of the fields are giant gold­en num­bers indi­cat­ing the year “1802,” fol­lowed by blood-drenched let­ters spelling “L’épopée guade­loupéenne.” In a cap­tion, Lara then briefly intro­duces the his­tor­i­cal con­text: the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in 1794 and Napoleon’s lat­er rein­sti­tu­tion. The first two scenes stage the oppos­ing play­ers: the Guade­lou­pean rebels gath­er­ing in a large home ver­sus Napoleon and Josephine dis­cussing the colonies in Paris, Novem­ber 1801. In the lat­ter scene, Lara presents a dia­logue in which Josephine pleads with Napoleon to return to Mar­tinique. When the ques­tion of slav­ery aris­es, Napoleon quick­ly states that the eman­ci­pa­tion was nev­er actu­al­ly legit­i­mate. Napoleon’s dis­mis­sive remarks con­vey his noto­ri­ous arro­gance and high­light the fun­da­men­tal­ly con­flict­ing posi­tions regard­ing the eman­ci­pa­tion. The alter­na­tion between the Guade­lou­pean and Parisian set­tings rais­es the sig­nif­i­cance of the revolt, plac­ing it in a wider his­tor­i­cal con­text and jus­ti­fy­ing the Guade­lou­pean resis­tance to the rein­sti­tu­tion of slavery.

When Richep­ance arrives in Guade­loupe, he imme­di­ate­ly pur­ports his mis­sion to “re-estab­lish order,” a euphemism for rein­stat­ing slav­ery. Richep­ance begins by dis­arm­ing the Guade­loupans. As the Guade­loupans shed their uni­forms, White sol­diers laugh and point at their vul­ner­a­ble, dis­robed fig­ures. Order, then, is actu­al­ly a demean­ing process that reflects the racial hier­ar­chy. Ful­ly aware that this dis­ar­ma­ment is the first step in re-enslav­ing the local pop­u­la­tion, sev­er­al Guade­lou­peans attempt to run away. Lara films vicious dogs and French sol­diers chas­ing these men until he cuts to por­tray Ignace inform­ing Del­grès of the recent events. The film con­tin­ues to fol­low the chronol­o­gy of the rebel­lion with the enlist­ment of Guade­lou­pean men and women fol­lowed by Del­grès’ rous­ing speech at Fort St-Charles (now known as Fort Louis Del­grès) in which he states: “We will fight this oppres­sion to our death.”[12] Sub­se­quent­ly, the Guade­lou­pean lead­er­ship crafts a procla­ma­tion out­lin­ing their griev­ances and strate­gizes late into the night; Lara rep­re­sents these fig­ures as resource­ful, con­tem­pla­tive tac­ti­cians who fight only as a last resort.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, 1802 includes scenes involv­ing British inter­est in Guade­loupe. Lara depicts the White Eng­lish gov­er­nor of Domini­ca receiv­ing a let­ter from the French request­ing help to counter the Guade­lou­pean slave rebel­lion. To con­vey the out­side involve­ment in Guade­lou­pean affairs, the Gov­er­nor dis­cuss­es the French request with an Amer­i­can Army Major present at the Governor’s man­sion. The two men dis­cuss how nei­ther the French Gen­er­al Leclerc nor Richep­ance are suc­ceed­ing in quelling the rebel­lions in Haiti and Guade­loupe. They admon­ish the pre­ced­ing lack of con­sul­ta­tion. Fol­low­ing this meet­ing, Richep­ance receives muni­tions from the Eng­lish and rearms the Guade­loupans who have cho­sen to fight against Del­grès’ men. With the inclu­sion of Amer­i­can and British involve­ment, Lara again rais­es the stakes of the Guade­lou­pean rebel­lion by high­light­ing its inter­na­tion­al effects. More­over, Lara impli­cates oth­er pow­er­ful coun­tries in the his­to­ry of slav­ery and the casu­al, dis­mis­sive way they address the top­ic. In his deci­sion to bring the colo­nial con­text for­ward, Lara denounces the colo­nial pow­ers and their self-serv­ing agenda.

In what remains of the film, Del­grès con­tin­ues to evolve into the more promi­nent pro­tag­o­nist. After the next bloody bat­tle between Del­grès and Richep­ance, Del­grès decides he must evac­u­ate the fort and descend into Point-à-Pitre to fight. Dur­ing a meet­ing, the rebel lead­ers express their hope for muni­tions from Tou­s­saint L’Ouverture. This meet­ing con­trasts with the pre­vi­ous scenes involv­ing the colonists and their loy­al­ty to one another.

The next day, Ignace and Del­grès lead dif­fer­ent groups into bat­tle. Lara films Ignace’s death on May 25th, 1802 in Baim­bridge, at a fort out­side of Point-à-Pitre. View­ers also see Del­grès as he receives news that Ignace’s head is on dis­play at Place de la Vic­toire in Point-à-Pitre. Lara then depicts the vio­lent bat­tle of Matou­ba at the Dan­gle­mont plan­ta­tion on May 28th, 1802. After los­ing this bat­tle, Del­grès counts the wound­ed in the rebel camp. With no more muni­tions, he announces defeat. In the final scene, Del­grès looks upon the los­ing Guade­lou­pean forces. The film does not overt­ly announce the sui­cide. Instead, Del­grès sits upon a rock­ing chair on the veran­da of a Cre­ole-style home. Smok­ing a pipe, he observes his fel­low rebels. Sud­den­ly, the home explodes. As the cred­its roll, Lara lists all known names of those who lost their lives in the rebel­lion. The clos­ing quo­ta­tion is from Oruno Lara (1879-1924), Lara’s grand­fa­ther and a promi­nent his­to­ri­an: “Each day of our progress is due to each day of their sac­ri­fice.” The state­ment rein­forces the film’s indict­ment of colo­nial France and its effort to recu­per­ate the courage and endurance of Louis Del­grès[13]


Com­par­a­tive Analy­sis of Sucre Amer and 1802, l’Epopée Guadeloupéenne

The gen­er­al char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mise-en-scène of 1802 are iden­ti­cal to Sucre Amer. Lara does not manip­u­late the set­ting through light­ing in either film. The col­or appears with low con­trast; thus, by using a small ratio of dark to light, the col­ors are more nat­u­ral­is­tic. Fur­ther­more, Lara refrains from the dig­i­tal alter­ation of the images. Unlike Euhzan Pal­cy in the open­ing sequences of an ear­li­er French-Caribbean film Rue Cas­es-Nègres (1983), Lara does not use sepia tones to styl­ize the envi­ron­ment and sig­nal a bygone era. Anoth­er cin­e­mat­ic tech­nique com­mon to Sucre Amer and 1802 is the spe­cif­ic choice of shots. As Mar­tine Beugnet explains, “choice of shot can be styl­is­ti­cal­ly exper­i­men­tal. Shots can be moti­vat­ed by style or by nar­ra­tive” (99). Lara does not shoot either film in an exper­i­men­tal or rad­i­cal man­ner. Rather, Lara choos­es shots that allow the nar­ra­tive to take prece­dence over style; he uses com­mon shots in tra­di­tion­al ways. Giv­en the nat­u­ral­is­tic light­ing and famil­iar shots, the mise-en-scène sug­gests a cer­tain realism.

Nev­er­the­less, the alter­nat­ing set­tings in Sucre Amer dis­turb this illu­sion of real­ism. The appear­ance of the char­ac­ters in 1802, on the oth­er hand, always cor­re­sponds to the time peri­od. As a result, the peri­od attire and bold col­ors in this film do not stand out as they do in the drab court­room of Sucre Amer. What makes acces­sories (tri­corne or bon­net phyrgien) and weapons of the Guade­lou­pean sol­diers visu­al­ly strik­ing in 1802 is that the uni­forms were sup­plied by the French. Instead of serv­ing as evi­dence of jux­ta­po­si­tion between past and present, the uni­forms are sig­nif­i­cant because they are a cen­tral part of the mise-en-scène, always act­ing as visu­al reminders of the fluc­tu­at­ing demands of the col­o­niz­er. Hence, in the bat­tle scenes that monop­o­lize 1802, the cos­tumes do not always dis­tin­guish the oppos­ing sides as much as racial­ized skin col­or does.

In addi­tion to the open fields where fight­ing took place, Lara also fea­tures anoth­er more rugged nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment that plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in 1802. Both Guade­lou­pean and French forces trek through the trop­i­cal for­est at dif­fer­ent points in the nar­ra­tive. Because Guade­loupe is cov­ered in thick, lush veg­e­ta­tion that press­es in on civ­i­liza­tion, the dense green­ery sur­rounds and almost swal­lows these groups as they make their way through the jun­gle. This mise-en-scène demon­strates how the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment dom­i­nates humankind. In the jun­gle, the French colo­nial sol­diers march with­out the same cer­tain­ty and com­po­sure of the Guade­loupans. The Guade­loupans nav­i­gate more eas­i­ly, cut­ting through the for­est at a swifter, more con­fi­dent pace.

Apart from the addi­tion­al bat­tle scenes, the nar­ra­tive of 1802 focus­es more on the colo­nial involve­ment. Ear­ly in the film Lara con­structs a scene in which Napoleon and Josephine con­spire at the bureau. To cor­re­spond with his­tor­i­cal accounts and por­traits, Lara dress­es them each in their sig­na­ture appar­el: Napoleon appears in a scar­let and gold embell­ished uni­form and Josephine wears a flow­ing ivory gown. The mise-en-scène of this room is dis­tinc­tive: bright­ly lit, filled with large wood­en fur­ni­ture and vivid­ly col­ored fab­rics. To empha­size their exu­ber­ant flir­ta­tion, Lara films them inter­mit­tent­ly in close-up. Their voic­es con­sti­tute the pri­ma­ry sound of the scene and are at times bois­ter­ous, then soft, play­ful, and coy. Josephine is more active, fill­ing the screen with her coquet­tish move­ments. The exces­sive, lux­u­ri­ant mise-en-scène con­veyed through the col­ors, shots, and move­ment cre­ates a por­tray­al of an indul­gent lifestyle far removed from the real­i­ties of slav­ery and slave revolts.

As a coun­ter­point to the visu­al excess sur­round­ing Napoleon and Josephine, the leader of the Guade­lou­pean rev­o­lu­tion, Del­grès, often appears in the more aus­tere envi­ron­ments of the 1802 rebel­lion. The mise-en-scène of an orga­ni­za­tion­al meet­ing between Del­grès and his sub­or­di­nates exem­pli­fies this type of set­ting (fig­ure 4). Seat­ed at a round table that occu­pies near­ly the entire room, Del­grès receives pref­er­en­tial treat­ment in the images, enabling Lara to exhib­it his immac­u­late dress, cal­cu­lat­ed man­ner­isms, and vis­i­ble authority.

Nonethe­less, the cir­cu­lar arrange­ment of the men also sug­gests col­lab­o­ra­tion, focus, and order. The sound­track of the scene con­sists of steady, medi­um-tem­po orches­tral music and infus­es the room with a refined, somber qual­i­ty. The men decide col­lec­tive­ly at this moment, “If we do not act, his­to­ry will con­demn us.”[14] One by one the men (among them Ignace, Com­man­der Alain, Cap­tain Dephin) swear to defend their freedom.

Figure 4. 1802 (2005) – Delgrès’ organizational meeting with rebel leaders

Fig­ure 4. 1802 (2005) – Del­grès’ orga­ni­za­tion­al meet­ing with rebel leaders

The slow pace of the action main­tains the solemn atmos­phere. The music then stops as they deter­mine the title of their man­i­festo. Work­ing late into the night, the can­dles drip­ping with wax and the sound of hooves in the back­ground, the final line of the man­i­festo is writ­ten at last: “We will die, sat­is­fied.”[15] The doc­u­ment is then passed from one leader to the next to be signed and the screen fades to black.

Unlike in Sucre Amer, the main char­ac­ters of 1802 all play a role in the revolt. Despite their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance with­in the con­text of Guade­lou­pean cul­ture, how­ev­er, the man­ner in which Lara rep­re­sents these char­ac­ters has been cause for con­tro­ver­sy; the char­ac­ters, more so in this film than in Sucre Amer, employ act­ing tech­niques more com­mon­ly seen on stage. On stage, loud­er voic­es, greater artic­u­la­tion, and a wider range of move­ment are tools that enable an actor to empha­size his character’s emo­tion­al com­po­si­tion for the ben­e­fit of the entire audi­ence. On film, how­ev­er, a character’s voice, pro­nun­ci­a­tion, and ges­tures can be more understated.

Rather than over-direc­tion, the the­atri­cal­i­ty of the per­for­mances in 1802 is a delib­er­ate choice. Emo­tion­al act­ing man­u­fac­tures the inten­si­ty of the era and mag­ni­fies cer­tain per­son­al­i­ties to expose either the flaws or the courage of these indi­vid­u­als. The most notice­able exam­ple of a char­ac­ter exhibit­ing such behav­ior is Saint-Eloy’s per­for­mance of Louis Del­grès. He deliv­ers his lines slow­ly, enun­ci­at­ing ful­ly and often paus­ing between each word. Dia­logue also forms a part of this kind of the­atri­cal per­for­mance: for exam­ple, Del­grès’ state­ment upon the writ­ing of the man­i­festo, “I, Louis Del­grès, swear to defend our free­dom even if it means I must sac­ri­fice my life,” and when he makes the fol­low­ing announce­ment at the fort, “We will fight this oppres­sion to the death.”[16] When speak­ing of death, lib­er­ty, and free­dom, as he fre­quent­ly does, his facial expres­sion is marked­ly somber, his ges­tures con­trolled, his body stiff and unmov­able. His inter­ac­tions with Ignace are also unmis­tak­able­ly intense. Before they split their forces, they stare direct­ly into each other’s eyes and slow­ly shake hands. Del­grès con­fess­es, “I’m count­ing on you, Ignace.”[17]

Lara por­trays Del­grès as a man play­ing for the high­est stakes, aware of what his con­tri­bu­tion would mean to future Guade­loupans, and pos­sess­ing a strong bond with the oth­er rebels, espe­cial­ly Ignace. Lara clear­ly directs Saint-Eloy to rep­re­sent Del­grès as the embod­i­ment of a great hero (fig­ure 5) dri­ven by a sin­gle, momen­tous cause. By giv­ing such weight to his per­for­mance, Lara ele­vates the impor­tance of his sacrifice.

Figure 5. Luc Saint-Eloy’s performance as Delgrès

Fig­ure 5. Luc Saint-Eloy’s per­for­mance as Delgrès

To empha­size the dichoto­my between the Guade­lou­pean heroes and the colo­nial lead­er­ship, the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Napoleon and Richep­ance are immense­ly unflat­ter­ing. Rather than rep­re­sent­ing Napoleon as a mas­ter tac­ti­cian, Lara repeat­ed­ly shows him in the pres­ence of Josephine. Their flir­ta­tion con­tin­ues in a scene in which they return to their extrav­a­gant home. In a cap­tion at the bot­tom of the screen, Lara indi­cates the date is May 20th, the height of the Guade­lou­pean rebel­lion and just days before the deaths of Ignace and Del­grès. In an ornate car­riage, the two flirt osten­ta­tious­ly, Napoleon affec­tion­ate­ly (and inac­cu­rate­ly) call­ing Josephine his “câpresse.”[18] Their laugh­ter and bois­ter­ous behav­ior under­score their lack of con­cern for the ongo­ing rebel­lions in the French Antilles. At one point, Napoleon even mis­pro­nounces “Guade­loupe”: “gag…gag.”

The French colo­nials are also dis­mis­sive of the rebel­lion and its cause. Dur­ing the fight­ing, wealthy Whites and Mulat­tos gath­er for a ball at Demeure de M. de La Bruner­ie, a plan­ta­tion in Basse-Terre. Richep­ance struts haugh­ti­ly around the home, danc­ing with chic, arro­gant women. Film­ing the group from above in an over­head shot, Lara under­scores how the opu­lent lifestyle of the colo­nials is unin­ter­rupt­ed by the revolt. The women car­ry on super­fi­cial con­ver­sa­tion, jok­ing about infi­deli­ty as mere­ly “a ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion.”[19] This evening affair in 1802 main­tains the por­tray­al of Richep­ance from Sucre Amer as a hedo­nis­tic commander.

Richepance’s sol­diers, on the oth­er hand, do not enjoy any of these plea­sures. Sim­i­lar to the character’s por­tray­al in Sucre Amer, Lara depicts the French sol­diers in a pos­i­tive man­ner. For exam­ple, he cuts repeat­ed­ly to a pla­toon of French sol­diers hik­ing in the for­est while attempt­ing to track down the insur­gents; in any giv­en alter­ca­tion with Del­grès’ troops, and par­tic­u­lar­ly in this scene, the French sol­diers are near­ly always shown as scared, bat­tle-scarred, and fatigued. Such sym­pa­thet­ic por­tray­al shows men who find them­selves fight­ing against the rebel­lion but who are also vic­tims of the war, not vicious colonizers.

In a lat­er instance, the French sol­diers dis­cuss the fact that polit­i­cal mat­ters are respon­si­ble for this fight in Guade­loupe. This con­ver­sa­tion dis­plays their human­i­ty and rein­forces the absur­di­ty of their role in the rein­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. After this con­ver­sa­tion, the sol­diers con­tin­ue march­ing until they decide to rest and set up a camp. Sud­den­ly, they dis­cov­er a French sol­dier hang­ing from a tree. When they bring his dead body down to the ground, he wears a sign in blood that reads “Français…rentrez chez vous (Frenchmen…go home).” React­ing to this sight, the young Lieu­tenant in charge informs them that if they want to return to France one day “vous devez tuer! Amen (you have to kill! Amen).” At the mer­cy of events beyond their con­trol, the Lieu­tenant calls upon the men to kill not to enact a colo­nial agen­da but for per­son­al survival.

Imme­di­ate­ly after this inci­dent, Lara films a group of Guade­lou­pean women bathing in a seclud­ed grot­to. To the sounds of string instru­ments, whis­tles, and laugh­ter, the women entice the dirty, fatigued White sol­diers to join them. The sol­diers give in instant­ly, demon­strat­ing their incred­i­ble naïveté. As soon as the sol­diers drop their weapons and dis­robe, the women grab hid­den weapons and ambush the sol­diers. Mulâtresse Soli­tude, the most famous female par­tic­i­pant in the rebel­lion, slices a White soldier’s throat, yelling out the rebellion’s trade­mark mot­to “Vive la lib­erté! (Long live free­dom!).” Caught lit­er­al­ly with their pants down, the men scam­per away, dodg­ing bul­lets. With the French sol­diers defeat­ed, the women cheer and shout, intense­ly proud of their suc­cess­ful ploy.

There are two impor­tant aspects of this scene. First, rather than abide by the com­mon trope of his­tor­i­cal dra­mas to fea­ture the dom­i­nance of pow­er­ful male fig­ures over the women of the oppos­ing group—usually in the form of rape or murder—this scene rein­forces the notion that the French sol­diers fre­quent­ly func­tion as vic­tims rather than aggres­sors. Lara rep­re­sents the French sol­dier as anoth­er cog in the colo­nial machine, sim­i­lar to the aver­age Guade­lou­pean. Sec­ond­ly, this scene is one of the most mem­o­rable instances of the cun­ning and sac­ri­fice of the women. His­tor­i­cal evi­dence con­firms the promi­nent role of the women in the rebel­lion. As Bernard Moitt explains, “Dur­ing the wars in Saint-Domingue and Guade­loupe, women demon­strat­ed a strik­ing strength of char­ac­ter: slave women also trans­port­ed ammu­ni­tion, food, and sup­plies, served as mes­sen­gers, cared for the sick, act­ed as cov­er for men under fire, and chant­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary slo­gans which kept spir­its high in the insur­rec­tionary forces of Del­grès, Palerme, and Ignace” (130). Ensur­ing that the film rep­re­sents his­tor­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ed actions, Lara repli­cates near­ly all of these con­tri­bu­tions in the film.

The main female fig­ure in the film, Mulâtresse Soli­tude, exem­pli­fies the zeal­ous par­tic­i­pa­tion of the women in the strug­gle. When she appears in the enlist­ment scene, for exam­ple, a sol­dier inquires whether she can actu­al­ly fight. In response, she snatch­es his gun and with a loud bang shoots off his tri­corne. The soldier’s mouth gapes open, aston­ished at Mulâtresse Solitude’s accu­ra­cy. In 1802, Mulâtresse Soli­tude is a strong-willed, able-bod­ied force whose the­atri­cal behav­ior enhances Lara’s pos­i­tive, exu­ber­ant rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Guade­lou­pean rebels.



Sheila Pet­ty artic­u­lates the stakes of both Sucre Amer and 1802, l’Épopée Guade­loupéenne in her work on Black Dias­poric cin­e­ma, explain­ing the rela­tion­ship between mem­o­ry and his­to­ry: “mem­o­ry, val­oriza­tion of oral his­to­ry, and the chal­leng­ing of racist pre­cepts become dri­ving forces in reassem­bling and recon­ceiv­ing frac­tured his­to­ries” (3). Petty’s insight high­lights the role of mem­o­ry in reha­bil­i­tat­ing the frag­ment­ed iden­ti­ties and his­to­ries that result­ed from the cycle of slav­ery, col­o­niza­tion, and neo­colo­nial­ism in the French Caribbean and oth­er Black Dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties. In Sucre Amer, the act of remem­ber­ing and the mem­o­ries recalled imme­di­ate­ly inform and affect the con­tem­po­rary scenes. This film there­fore pro­vides a con­vinc­ing exam­ple of how cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion relies upon both mem­o­ry and spec­ta­tor­ship to reassem­ble frac­tured histories.

In fact, the present rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his­tor­i­cal events is so intense­ly impor­tant in con­tem­po­rary Guade­lou­pean cul­ture because it allows the pub­lic, the Guade­lou­pean audi­ence most notably, to “reassem­ble” and “recon­ceive” of frac­tured his­to­ries, to use Petty’s terms. Lara’s films have a cal­cu­lat­ed pur­pose of bring­ing the past to light. Lara envi­sions film as a means to revis­it the past in order to recon­struct a miss­ing his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion. Both Sucre Amor and 1802, L’Épopée Guade­loupéenne are part of a cul­tur­al effort to pay trib­ute to the Guade­lou­pean rebels, con­demn colo­nial France, and over­come the last­ing tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble effects of colo­nial­ism by (re)awakening Guade­lou­peans to painful moments of their past.



[1] See: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​7​0​5​G​I​l​o​2​Wm4
[2] For a geneal­o­gy of French-Caribbean cin­e­ma, see my arti­cle in small axe (Novem­ber 2010): “Ciné woulé, ciné en progress.”
[3] For exam­ples of crit­i­cism of Lara’s work, see Audé, Bouk­man, Cham, and Spaas.
[4] “une table rase…avec surtout une dig­nité reconnue….C’est notre devoir de mémoire.” Trans­la­tions are mine.
[5] “Je ne suis pas un héros, Je suis un nègre de la Guade­loupe c’est tout.”
[6] “Pour nous, votre procès est important.”
[7] http://​www​.guade​loupe​-infor​ma​tions​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​.​p​h​p​?​i​d​_​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​=45 Active ref­er­ence: July 21, 2006 - Dec. 12, 2008. Accessed: August 20, 2008
[8] “Nous sommes fiers de notre passé et c’est pour cela que nous voulons le faire ressur­gir pour bâtir le socle qui nous manque. Nous ne voulons pas du socle qu’on a établi pour nous, mais au con­traire bâtir nos pro­pres repères. Le com­bat à men­er est dans leurs têtes et dans nos têtes. C’est un véri­ta­ble rap­port de force entre colonisa­teurs et colonisés. Nous sommes oblig­és de par­ler d'oppression, de lib­erté à retrou­ver.” http://​www​.fluc​tu​at​.net/​c​i​n​e​m​a​/​i​n​t​e​r​v​i​e​w​/​e​l​o​y​.​htm Active ref­er­ence: Dec. 4, 2000 - Sept. 7, 2009. Accessed: June 15, 2009
[9] “Je hais ma couleur.”
[10] “Afrique, c’est fini.”
[11] “Aujourd’hui nous renaissons!”
[12] “Nous com­bat­trons cette oppres­sion jusqu’à la mort.”
[13] “Chaque jour de notre pro­grès est fait de chaque jour de leur sacrifice.”
[14] “Si nous réagis­sons pas, l’histoire nous condamnera.”
[15] “Nous mourons, satisfaits.”
[16] “Moi, Louis Del­grès, je jure de défendre notre lib­erté même si je dois pour cela sac­ri­fi­er ma vie.”
“Nous com­bat­trons cette oppres­sion jusqu’à la mort.”
[17] “Je compte sur toi Ignace.”
[18] Female inhab­i­tant of the French Antilles, daugh­ter of a White and a Mulat­to. http://​www​.esclavage​-mar​tinique​.com/​u​k​/​d​e​f​/​c​a​p​r​e​.​htm
[19] “une ques­tion d’organisation”


Works Cit­ed

Audé, Fran­coise. Ciné­ma d’elles 1981-2001: sit­u­a­tion des cinéastes femmes dans le ciné­ma fran­cais. Lau­sanne: L‘age d‘homme, 2002. Print.

Beugnet, Mar­tine. Cin­e­ma and Sen­sa­tion: French Film and the Art of Trans­gres­sion. Car­bon­dale, IL: South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. Print.

Bouk­man, Daniel. “CinémAction/Tricontinental. Spe­cial Edi­tion: Le Tiers Monde en Films.” Antilles (1982): 95-97. Print.

Cham, Mbye. “Shape and Shap­ing of Caribbean Cin­e­ma.” Cin­e­mas of the Black Dias­po­ra: Diver­si­ty, Depen­den­cy and Oppo­si­tion­al­i­ty. Ed. Michael T. Mar­tin. Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995. 241-265. Print.

Har­row, Ken­neth. Post­colo­nial African Cin­e­ma: From Polit­i­cal Engage­ment to Post­mod­ernism. Bloom­ing­ton: Uni­ver­si­ty of Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. Print.

Moitt, Bernard. Women and Slav­ery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Bloom­ing­ton: Uni­ver­si­ty of Indi­ana Press, 2002. Print.

Nichols, Bill. “Dis­cov­er­ing form, infer­ring mean­ing: New Cin­e­mas and the Film Fes­ti­val Cir­cuit.” Film Quar­ter­ly 47.3 (1994): 16-30. Print.

Pet­ty, Sheila J. Con­tact Zones: Mem­o­ry, Ori­gin and Dis­cours­es in Black Dias­poric Cin­e­ma. Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. Print.

Robin­son, Mered­ith N. “Ciné woulé, ciné en pro­grès: An Inves­ti­ga­tion of the Fran­coph­o­ne Caribbean Film Cir­cuit, 1968-2010.” small axe: A Caribbean Jour­nal of Crit­i­cism 14.3 (2010): 45-68. Print.

Sat­ter­lee, Michelle. Shad­ows of the self: trau­ma, mem­o­ry, and place in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can fic­tion. Diss. Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, 2006. Print.

Spaas, Lieve. The Fran­coph­o­ne Film: a Strug­gle for Iden­ti­ty. Man­ches­ter: Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000. Print.


Image Notes

Fig­ures 1-3: screen­shots Sucre Amer (1997)

Fig­ure 4-5: screen­shots 1802, l’Epopée Guade­loupéenne (2005)

Copy­right Mered­ith Robin­son. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.