Films for Liberation: Christian Lara’s Sucre amer and the Court of History

In Los Angeles, I assume like every big city, we have in the African and Latino neighborhoods a network of independent movie distributors: “Got those DVDs, Blue-rays, what you need?”  And in Los Angeles, a unionized industry town, that’s tricky.  Many families region wide are directly and indirectly tied to the entertainment industry.  The underground trade in DVDs, including pirated and bootlegged films, does have an economic impact.  However, many of the brothers and sisters distributing films at the bus stops, subway stations, and supermarket parking lots won’t be employed by the legal economy.  Many have been marked as unemployable by the mainstream and rely on the underground economy to pay the cost of living.  Furthermore, Hollywood, that is the entertainment industry, continues to be the principal purveyor of white supremacist imagery and narrative through all media.  The entertainment industry is the propaganda wing of the empire and routinely engages in the ideological reproduction of whiteness and the claimed privileges that accrue to that condition.  Much of what the brothers and sisters distribute is the same stultifying propaganda and cooning Hollywood mass produces as a matter of course.  Here, I would like to recommend some other films for these comrades to peddle from gym bags or car trunks, films that reproduce the Black world, films for liberation.      

In Sucre amer, first released in 1998, Christian Lara of Guadeloupe uses a trial to raise the question as to the right of enslaved persons to defend their personhood and their liberty, specifically, as agents for revolutionary change.  Although ostensibly an appeal trial to clear the name of Major Joseph Ignace (actor Jean-Michel Martial), a Guadeloupean commander in the French army who after fighting royalists in the island on behalf of the French Republic, found himself and his armies in rebellion against Napoleon’s army sent to re-institute slavery in Haiti and Guadeloupe, the trial actually serves to reveal the hypocrisy of Western bourgeois democracy in its inability or unwillingness to resolve the contradiction between a discourse of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the practice of slavery and colonialism vis-à-vis Africans present in France and the French colonies in the Caribbean.  

Contemporary heads of state often claim that their policies and the implementation of those policies can only be judged by history.  Lara takes this distancing turn of phrase and imagines a court of history composed of characters from Guadeloupean and French history.  For example, the Chevalier de St. Georges –sometimes called the black Mozart, his contemporary – and Victor Schoelcher, France’s answer to England’s Wilberforce and The United States’ Garrison, serve on the jury, and the Empress Josephine, from the Guadeloupean Creole Elite, appears as a witness.  Lara indeed invokes the judgment of the present by having the trial take place in the Court of History by name. Similar to Bamako, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako of Mali, Sucre amer offers no exposition to explain why the case has come to the bench.  We simply see the jury file into the deliberation room, preparing for deliberations, and a single lawyer, an unnamed, middle aged black man only referred to as l’avocat, the advocate (actor Robert Liensol), pacing a French courtroom presenting his case.  Madam Prosecutor lays out the case for treason against Major Ignace, and the advocate puts forth his defense, casting Ignace, and by extension all the formerly enslaved Africans, as a victim of French bad faith.

Sucre amer asks a fundamental question: can men and women who resist enslavement in the name of liberty and those rights that accrue to people by virtue of their humanity be traitors to a state founded on these same principles?  In order to answer the question, Lara moves among three narrative sites, the courtroom, the jury’s deliberation room, and the island of Guadeloupe where the subjects of the trial enact the historical events.  Of these three sites, the historical scenes feel most real. Conversely, the trial and jury deliberations play as fantastic, surreal, unreal, even carnivalesque, as the Empress Josephine enters the courtroom with full retinue.  The trial shifts from site to site in a non-linear style, moving from testimony, to historical enactments, to jury deliberation. 

Sucre amer was released in 1998 and won the Paul Robeson Diaspora Prize at the 1999 Ouagadougou Pan African Film and Television Festival.  Lara had attempted to answer the above question in a previous film, Vivre Libre ou Mourir (Live Free or Die).  Lara revisited the events again in 2004 in his film 1802, l’epopee guadeloupeenne (1802: The Guadeloupean Epic), a more traditional re-telling of the Guadeloupeans’ defense of their liberty employing the same actors.  Sucre amer re-imagines the former film; however, Lara adds the feature of the jury’s deliberation.  The chronology of the historical scenes depends upon which witness speaks, and rather than reproduce the linear chronology of a trial in which the jury deliberates after all testimony and judge or magistrate has given the framing instructions, the film begins with the jury, and the jury deliberates throughout the film.  The jury room is darkly lit and claustrophobic, a bit like being backstage in a theater.  Indeed it feels theatrical, appropriately so considering jury members wear period costumes.  Their discussions reproduce the arguments of the last 200 plus years concerning the rights of Africans: the paternalist, the romantic, the noble savage, the unredeemable savage, the planter’s economic necessity.  The jury is composed of black and white members, female and male members, conservative and liberal/radical members. 

In contrast to the closeness of the jury room and spectacle of the courtroom, Lara fills the historical scenes in Guadeloupe with open vistas, quiet beaches, green hills and forests and characters that embody the revolutionary energies of the period.  The Guadeloupean Jacobins, those identified Black and those identified Mulatto, men and women, dress in the uniforms of the French Republican army and wear the Phrygian cap of the Parisian under classes storming the Bastille.  Their costumes and their rhetoric place them at the center of the revolutionary moment even as they are spatially distant from the center.  But the outposts of empire, its margins, are its center.

W. E. B. Du Bois explains the fundamental meaning of the colonies to the possibility of the French Revolution.  The great wealth, the capital generated by the slave trade buttressed the newly confident and long solvent bourgeoisie:


Long before 1789 the French bourgeoisie was the most

powerful force France and the slave trade in the colonies,

the basis of its power.  The fortunes created at Bordeaux

and at Nantes by the slave trade gave the bourgeoisie the

pride that demanded “liberty.”  In 1666, 108 ships went

from Nantes to Africa with 37, 430 slaves valued at 37

million dollars and giving the owners from 15 to 20 per

cent on their money.  In 1700 Nantes was sending 50 ships

a year to the West Indies with food, clothing and machinery.

Nearly all the industries developed in France were based on

the slave trade with America. (The DuBois Reader 212-213)


Du Bois begins his discussion of the French Revolution and Africa’s influence on it, Africa embodied in those captives enslaved and transported to the Americas, the embodiment of African wealth in its human resources, by expressing how little remarked upon and unknown, elided, the key economic relationships described above are.  This relationship was not lost on the historical players.  Consider the events of Haiti and the career of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

C.L.R. James, in The Black Jacobins, at once celebrates and critiques the career of L’Ouverture, but he does not see L’Ouverture as a man outside of history, “… no Negro freak. The same forces which moulded [sic] his genius had helped to create his black and Mulatto generals and officials” (256).  Like their European counterparts, the revolutionary moment created the space for the activity of Toussaint and the other Haitians, as they themselves produced the conditions for that moment through their activity as economic subjects in the mercantile and plantation economies.  They were, for James, embodiments of the liberal revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, “…for the revolution had created a new race of men” (242).    However, these revolutionary subjects did not change the economic realities of the period, thus thoroughly complicating the meaning of freedom after the only successful slave and first workers’ revolution in modern history. 

L’Ouverture saw Haiti as an integral part of France and the French Revolution, and he recognized the importance of prosperity to maintaining freedom within the island, having conquered the Spanish part of the island, even if he resisted declaring independence from France.  Although African laborers were freed and slavery outlawed, the workers were confined to the plantations and mills under the generals to ensure the sugar plantations continued to produce at a high rate.  The workers received 25 percent of the produce, and they loved Toussaint even as they grumbled and distrusted the remaining and privileged whites.  L’Ouverture so well understood the limits of his own power within the system of the period that when he wrote a Constitution for Haiti, he continued to authorize the importation of slaves from Africa to insure a labor force for an island depleted by war (James 265).  The Africans were freed upon arrival, but this could not repair the rupture from home and family, nor necessarily assuage the horrors of the passage.  So even Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great revolutionary, a giant of the era, freedom fighter and hero to millions of Africans in the Americas and elsewhere for more than two hundred years, even he had to compromise with the system.

Jean Jacques Dessalines

The historical scenes in Sucre amer chronicle these events as they played out in Guadeloupe.  These were the events in which Major Joseph Ignace and his comrades in Guadeloupe participated.  Under Jean Jacques Dessalines, the Haitians militarily defeated the French, winning their independence.  The Guadeloupeans’ defeat by the French may explain their relegation to the edges of memory.  Whereas the testimony of the witnesses casts the Guadeloupeans as heroes or villains depending on their interests, vis-à-vis slavery and racism, the historical scenes clearly evoke the revolutionary spirit of the historical actors represented.  Charged with treason, they respond to French treachery with resistance.  These African soldiers, dressed in the blue jackets and white vests and pants of the French, epaulettes on their shoulders, and a white paste smeared over their faces, French in their costume and African in their aspect, these are the subjects Lara restores to Caribbean memory, to African international memory, to revolutionary memory.  Theirs is a story to inspire us now, the story of those who refused to surrender. 

Sucre amer tells the kind of story we want to see and Hollywood refuses to tell, stories of African resistance on African terms.  Just as we need to tell the stories of our victories, we must also tell the stories of our defeats.  Both have necessary lessons for us.  What verdict is rendered in the film? What Western institution can possibly create justice for Africans when they are so structurally dedicated to dominating Africans? Whose opinions of Major Ignace and his comrades matter most?

Viewers should know that the film does include scenes of graphic violence and strong sexual situations if they are considering viewing with children.  The DVD is formatted for Region 5, so viewing requires a Region 5 or multi-region DVD player. Have a film party. And maybe get a copy for one of your local, independent, grassroots culture distributors.   


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