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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

Jonathan Demme and Jean Dominique

Jonathan Demme and Jean Dominique, discussing Haitian film in 1994. Radio Haiti Archives

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

Our colleague Laura Wagner recently published this reflection on Jonathan Demme's passion for Haiti and his friendship with the founder of Radio Haïti-Inter, Jean Dominique. Radio Haiti Lives was one of the first collaborative projects of the Forum for Scholars and Publics, and the preservation of Radio Haiti's materials continues through the work of Wagner and others at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The recordings and artifacts in the Achiv Radyo Ayiti - Radio Haiti Archive remind us of the sacrifices made by Jean Dominique and his partner and wife, Michèle Montas. Before Duke began its work to share that collection, Jonathan Demme created The Agronomist, a film documenting Jean Dominique's limitless love for and commitment to Haiti. In April 2015, in partnership with the Haitian Film Series at Duke, we were honored to host a screening of The Agronomist and a discussion with Demme, Michèle Montas, and Dominique's daughter, writer Gigi Dominique. Jonathan Demme was warm, generous, and eager to share his passion for Radio Haiti, the family that nurtured it, and the country it served. Banner image from Material Culture March 2017: Peterson Laurent (Haitian/St. Marc, 1888-1958), Three Fishes, circa 1950-55, oil-on-Masonite, 20 x 24 inches, signed, Jonathan Demme collection.

Laura Wagner

LAURA WAGNER, Ph.D., is the Radio Haiti project archivist at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. She received her BA from Yale University and her PhD in anthropology from UNC-Chapel Hill, where her research focused on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She is also a fiction and nonfiction writer; her first novel, Hold Tight Don’t Let Go, was published in 2015.