How Jonathan Demme Walked the Walk in Haiti
May 5, 2017
Jonathan Demme, who died last week at age 73, was best known to American audiences as the Academy Award-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but to those who knew him in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, Demme was an ardent and unwavering advocate of human rights and democracy in Haiti.
By Laura Wagner
For many foreigners, Haiti is an obscure object of intervention and salvation, onto which they project hopes, fantasies, and despairs.
For Demme, however, Haiti mattered concretely. He promoted the rights of people in Haiti and of Haitian refugees and detainees in the United States, working with groups including the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Americans for Immigrant Justice, whose director, Cheryl Little, last week recalled that he “didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk.” Demme did this work with humility, openness, and wonder, without fanfare or ego.
But Demme, an avid collector of Haitian art, knew and loved Haiti beyond the headlines, beyond human rights abuses and crisis. He promoted Haitian talent—Haitian directors, actors, writers, musicians, visual artists, and journalists. (Haitian music appears in The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Beloved, and Rachel Getting Married—and if you look carefully, Hannibal Lecter’s equally sadistic nemesis, Dr. Chilton, has Haitian paintings hanging in his office.)
During his first trip to Haiti in 1987, shortly after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, to make the documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, Demme met Jean Dominique, the director of Radio Haïti-Inter, and Dominique’s professional partner and wife, Michèle Montas. Demme would recall that Jean Dominique was “the most charismatic man I had ever encountered. I couldn’t believe this guy! ... He just oozed charisma, and confidence, and cool. And when he spoke, you wanted to hear more.” His decades-long friendship with Dominique and Montas would prove to be one of his most enduring engagements with Haiti...
Read the remainder of the essay at Slate.com.