A few years ago, Danny Glover sat in his car and cried. The Hollywood star and political activist had just heard the news that his friend, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, had been toppled in a coup backed by the US and France. “It was 28 February 2004 and I sat in that parking lot crying uncontrollably, knowing that we’d have to start building again.”
Glover fixes me with tired eyes as we sit in an upstairs room of the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London’s Kentish Town on a rainy Saturday afternoon. He has just flown in from the US and the same evening will give a speech at the center during a fund-raiser for the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.
In the years since Aristide was ousted, Haiti has suffered floods, mud-slides, hurricanes, an earthquake in 2010 that killed tens of thousands, followed by a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 6,000. Infrastructure has collapsed, gang violence remains rife and the UN has described the human rights situation as “catastrophic.”
“When I talk about Haiti, it breaks my heart,” says Glover. “Yet when I think about the Haitian people’s resilience, it heals my heart at the same time.”
This is Glover’s great theme and his deepest conviction: that there is something special and indomitable about the Haitian people. “You’ve got to know your history,” says Glover. “The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the Haitian revolution was the first victory against the worldwide system of slavery. Not Wilberforce. Wilberforce may have understood that, in an emerging capitalist society, slavery had gone through its evolutionary purpose, but it was the Haitians who struck the first blow.
“I know that blood runs through them from that time. And since the moment they organized that revolution, they have been defecated on, they’ve been undermined, yet they keep organizing. And you look in their faces and they could well have been the faces that stood facing Napoleon’s army.”
Glover found out about the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in the early 1970s when he read The Black Jacobins by CLR James, the Trinidadian socialist historian (and sometime Manchester Guardian cricket correspondent). By that time, Glover was already a protest veteran who, as a member of the black students’ union at San Francisco State University, had participated in a five-month strike to establish a black studies department. But it made an enormous impact on him.
For more than 30 years, Glover has been trying to make a biopic about the leader of the Haitian revolution. True, the story of L’Ouverture has been told before, notably in a play by CLR James that was staged in London’s West End in 1936 starring Paul Robeson, and more recently in a French TV series starring Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis. But Glover believes his treatment will be the first to “have the epic scale these events require.”
But when will we see this directorial debut? In 2006, Glover assembled a cast including Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mos Def, and planned to shoot his film in South Africa and Venezuela, thanks to US$18 million from one of Glover’s heroes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Six years on, filming has not started. “We’ll get the film done,” says Glover. “We came so close so many times, you could almost taste it, man. We came that close and we’re going to do it.”