Geographies and Genders of Revolt

Tula Commentary

Tula: The Revolt (Jeroen Leinders, 2013) tells the story of the 1795 slave revolt on the island of Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies. The titular character, Tula, becomes the instigator and leader of the revolt. Although Tula insists that the rebels remain peaceful so they can demand the governor institute the rule of law, the white colonists and the Dutch army attack them. Tula and his army fight to defend themselves, but Dutch manipulation and firepower ultimately overwhelm the rebels. Tula and the other rebel leaders are captured, tortured, and executed.

Tula is the second film in the CIRS Cinematic Afterlives series where the Haitian revolution unfolds off screen. In both Tula and La Última Cena, this off-screen event forms more than a contextual backdrop. Instead, the events in Haiti spur characters’ hopes, aspirations, fears, and anxieties. The specter of Haiti thus constitutes a driving force of the film.

However, despite the off-screen presence of the Haitian revolution, Tula flattens the importance of the wider Black Atlantic in the praxis of the Curaçao rebels. From the opening narrative cards of the film, Curaçao’s Caribbean and Atlantic context is downplayed, introduced to us as an arid island that one cannot leave. The sequence of events which brings the off-screen revolution into the story of Tula underscores the tension that this misrepresentation renders in the film. Speranza, Tula’s lover, also enslaved on the Knip plantation, overhears the plantation owner van Uytrecht’s conversation with another white colonist describing the fall of the Dutch Republic to the French, and the French National Assembly’s abolition of slavery. Speranza insists she has not heard anything when van Uytrecht confronts her, but quickly races to tell Tula the news. The fact that Speranza knew what to make of the Dutch defeat, Tula’s reaction to her news, and the sudden appearance of French revolutionary slogans among the rebels all hint at a deeper, more sophisticated knowledge of Atlantic politics.

To fully appreciate the significance of the Curaçao revolt in the Atlantic world, a broader context is necessary. Far from being an isolated arid island, Curaçao was deeply connected to Spanish terra firma by both legal and illicit slave trading—and simultaneously, that connection provided avenue for some enslaved people to flee their bondage. It was also a hub for the wider Caribbean. As a commercial hub, the island’s ports were key sites of contact with visitors and travel to other islands—especially to the southern part of Saint-Domingue (Haiti).[1] In part reflective of this commercial status, as well as the difficulties the island’s climate presented to plantation agriculture, Curaçao also had a large free population of color. According to Gert Oostindie, in the years leading up to the revolt, Curaçao had a population of just under 21,000 people—4,410 whites, 3,714 “free citizens of color,” and 12,864 enslaved people.[2] Karwan Fatah-Black’s careful social history of the revolt emphasized the importance of the ties between Saint-Domingue and Curaçao—rumors of military assistance, the sharing of republican ideas, and the movements of enslaved people. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall suggests that Tula himself may have spent time in the French Caribbean, and his right-hand-man Louis was also from Saint-Domingue.[3]

The ability of word to travel so quickly—and when necessary, surreptitiously—across the Caribbean and enslaved communities throughout the Americas underscores the existence of a widespread and well-established network through which news and abolitionist thought circulated through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moreover, enslaved and free Black people did not simply “adopt” revolutionary language from the American and French, but instead took advantage of the fractures they revealed in the plantation system and racial ideologies of freedom to advance longstanding political goals. And, as we see in Tula, political thought and practice among the enslaved was far from monolithic.

The specter of Haiti hangs over the film in another way too: the involvement of American actor Danny Glover, who plays one of the film’s main characters, a man named Shinishi enslaved on the Knip Plantation. While Glover is most widely known for his role in the Lethal Weapon series, he has spent his career developing and telling Black stories on both stage and screen—including working to give the Haitian revolution the epic cinematic treatment it deserves.

Glover has been trying to make a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture, a leader of the Haitian revolution, for a long time. According to Glover, funding has been difficult to secure for a story without the white “heroes” that feature in many films about slavery—Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) perhaps being the quintessential example. Glover’s difficulty has not been singular. Indeed, depicting the Haitian revolution on screen has presented challenges since the “golden age” of cinema, when Paul Robeson was meant to star as Toussaint L’Ouverture in a film by the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. That film never came to fruition.[4] Historian Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall suggests that this relative lack of representation, particularly when compared to the Haitian revolution’s counterparts in the United States and France, can be traced back to the Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s idea of “unthinkability.”[5] The Haitian revolution, Trouillot asserts, was unthinkable “in the framework of Western thought”, which took “each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance” by enslaved people and “drained [it] of its political content.”[6]

Tula: The Revolt despite its limits, does emphasize the political subjectivity of enslaved men, whereas other films depicting slave revolt have often dismissed such motivations or reduced them to rehashings of white European political thought. We see the rebels debate politics and strategy around a dining table in an occupied plantation house. Real, if underdeveloped, disagreements occur about the use of violence, the applicability of laws, and ideas of sovereignty and property. All the serious political discussions happen among the rebels, a refreshing reversal from other films about slavery like Amistad.

But what about the women? When watching the film, I was reminded of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s opening monologue in Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence (2014): “As for gendering, we must ourselves gender ‘the people.’” If Tula: The Revolt is a (true) story about enslaved people claiming the Rights of Man, the role of women is more ambiguous. Speranza’s bravery, in this telling, is what ultimately opens the door of discontent onto rebellion. But what does she think? In one notable moment, she walks out of the occupied plantation house in an extravagant European-style gown. Tula asks her if it was really necessary to steal the dress, to which Speranza replies “I’m not going to be the sort of free woman who wears slaves’ rags.” The camera turns away. Since we are seeing this scene through Tula’s gaze, without elaboration, the moment can come off as frivolous. But thanks to the work of scholars like Stephanie Camp, we know that clothing—especially for enslaved and freed women—was political. Clothes could be a mark of bondage or evidence of freedom.[7] The politics of freedom were gendered. Speranza’s claim that her dress marked her freedom was no less serious a claim than Tula’s claim of equality before the law.

In the end, Speranza, like many of the women, survives. They sing outside the courtroom as their husbands, sons, lovers, and brothers are sentenced to tortuous death stand as a reminder that executing rebel leaders will not bring peace to a slave society—but Speranza’s memory and experience of rebellion is ultimately not the source of future hope. Instead, it is her and Tula’s son, also named Tula, on whom the dream of freedom must rest—a freedom that will not come for nearly seven more decades.

Trish Kahle is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University Qatar, is a historian of the United States. Cinematic Afterlives was developed in tandem with Kahle’s course on Atlantic World history.

[1] Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (New York: Verso, 2018); Karwan Fatah-Black, “Orangism, Patriotism, and Slave Revolt in Curaçao, 1795-1796,” International Review of Social History 58 (2013): 35-60.

[2] Gert Oostindie, “Slave resistance, colour lines, and the impact of the French and Haitian revolutions in Curaçao,” in Curaçao in the Age of Revolutions, 1795-1800, Rosemarijn Hoefte and Gert Oostindie, eds. (Leinden: Brill, 2011), 5.

[3] Fatah-Black, “Orangism, Patriotism, and Slave Revolt in Curaçao, 1795-1796,” and Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021), 49.

[4] For a full accounting of the efforts to depict the Haitian revolution on screen—and the limits of these efforts, see Sepinwall, Slave Revolt on Screen.

[5] Sepinwall, Slave Revolt on Screen, 23-42.

[6] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Books, 2015), 82-83.

[7] Stephanie M. H. Camp, “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the Plantation South, 1830-1861,” Journal of Southern History 68 no. 3 (2002): 533-572.

Article by Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar