Last night at 6:50 p.m. in the Lafitte Cinema in my home twon of Abbeville, Louisiana the film Belizaire the Cajun was playing as it hads been all this week in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary this week. It has also playing on a number of other large screens and so I wrote more or less this post as a note on Facebook and began with an admonition. “I want to say to start of this note that if you can make it there or to one of the other theaters where it is playing then I recommend you see it. It is good art and a fine film which introduced many people to the idea of traiteurs, a raconteur, a creole planter, a Cajun or any number of other things for the first time. Glen Pitre is an artist and is on my list here on Facebook at least until he reads this review and he has an eye which is a great credit to South Louisiana. Now comes the part that will possibly get one of my art world rivals to leave my Facebook friends list.”
I will reproduce most of the note as it appeared on Facebook with few changes. I would urge those of you who can to see the film anyway you can. But it will not be likely to be available on many large screens.
The director of this and other films often set in this region, Pitre is a Harvard University man and sometimes his biases are formed by that experience in a university which has several times been at the heart of attacks, defamation and persecution of Acadians. Belizaire is a poor village healer who opposes an Anglophone incursion of Vigilantes in the Vermilion Parish area. He tells the story well in film.Belizaire the Cajun the 1986 film directed by Glen Pitre stars Armand Assante.The film was exhibited in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The cast has a great name and some local talent. The list of dramatis personae is:
- Armand Assante – Belizaire Breaux
- Gail Youngs – Alida Thibodaux
- Michael Schoeffling – Hypolite Leger
- Stephen McHattie – James Willoughby
- Will Patton – Matthew Perry
- Nancy Barrett – Rebecca
- Loulan Pitre – Sheriff
- Andre Delaunay – Dolsin
- Jim Levert – Amadee Meaux
- Ernie Vincent – Old Perry
- Paul Landry – Sosthene
- Allan Durand – Priest
- Robert Duvall – The Preacher
- Bob Edmundson – Head Vigilante
- Charlie Goulas – Vigilante
However, the story of Belizaire Breaux, a village healer (traiteur) in Acadiana in 1859, who becomes entangled in a violent conflict between Cajuns and the new Anglophone arrivals to Southwest Louisiana is a story that certainly played out at various times and places but not in the place and way in which the story is made into a film. This is a mischaracterization of the story told in huge and significant ways:
The name of the real 1859 Vigilantes that the fictional Belizaire confronts was the Comité de Vigilance des Attakapas, the vigilantes had a chronicler and historian who wrote not in English as the film would suggest but rather in French. The name refers to the region and not the ethnicity of the vigilantes.Vermilion and much of Lafayette Paishe were known as Terre des Attakapas, or Attakapas country. The Atakapas were an Aboriginal American tribe known for small numbers, ferocity and cannibalism who were very diminished in wars with other Aboriginal American nations, the Spanish and the French before the Acadians under Joseph Broussard came to this region. The Prairie where Abbeville and Lafayette sit is the Attakapas country in Acadian and Louisiana parlance. A good number of Atakapas (or Attakapas of Atakkapas) were killed inskirmishes and there wives and children taken as mistresseses and second families by the Acadians. Some of their descendants joined the Houma who also interbred and intermarried heavily with the Acadians. The Attakapas name was so hated by neighbors that only people who are almost pure European White have ever dared to use it since first contact. There are remenants but no tribe. The remnants are spread over a large area.
The story Pitre tells is sort of where one ends up trying to tell the Acadian story to undergrads and popular teachers at Harvard. It overlooks and undermines the story of a different Acadian element and experience operating within the lartger community, ignore Acadian slaveholding. The Anglo Perry family did not lead the Vigilantes but were secondary or lower dfown in rank to the Acadian Moutons and to my own Acadian Leblanc ancestors. The Vigilantes did persecute some Acadian folk heros and outlaws and pople of mixed race ancestry who were Acadian on the WHite side but they hanfed Germans, anglos posing as Acadians and black people as well. There is no simplicity in the events of that time and perhaps the movie tries to address centuries of ignorance in the national consciousness in a single film. I have watched it many times and find plenty to like in it but it is not history. It is only much more history than most Amercians have of ignored Acadians.
I once responded to a request for a brief list of Acadian ethnic actions which are known and organized in historical documents and are clear to the observer as distinct from the outlaw heroics of men like the real men Belizaire represents. Here is my list:
The following timeline is from memory and tapped out quickly. It leaves out far more than it includes. Nonetheless, in this blog I often argue that we may have reached an Acadian moment in American history. Therefore, I want to give some idea of where that moment would fall in our history.
1600ish Project of founding Acadie begins in Western France.
1755 Le Grand Derangement peaks with exiles from Grand Pre area as the Brits drive out the “French Neutrals” and burn, confiscate or destroy almost all their possessions.
1785 Joseph Broussard Dit Beausoleil and his company receive near state statue from the Spanish Empire on the Atakapas Prairie. Connections well established with Olivier Theriot’s Acadian Colony in East Louisiana.
Very Early 1800s Acadians deal with numerous transitions including the Louisiana Purchase, some fight at Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana becomes a State of the United States.
1850s Tensions build toward the Civil War. Acadian Governor Mouton prominent in crisis. Comite de Vigilance des Atakapas founded.
1860s French Prince Camille de Polignac fights in Acadiana as a Confederate general. Acadian Confederate General Mouton dies of wounds received at Shiloh. The Confederacy loses the war.
1881 5000 or so Acadians gather for the first National Convention intended to represent the whole people publicly since the exile. August 15, Feast of the Assumption is named national Acadian holiday.
1938 the Pope recognizes Feast of Assumption as Acadian holiday.
1940s through 1950s Dudley Leblanc leads a high profile movement of activism, study and international committees.
1960s Acadian music, festivals and crafts better organized in Louisiana. Sometimes call the start of an Acadian Renaissance.
1980s Congres Mondial makes strong steps to restore national union of family associations.
2003 Her Britannic Majesty Elizabeth Queen of Scotland and of England Second of the Name issues a proclamation regarding the Acadians and Le Grand Derangement
So if you are influenced by this note then watch the film. The film is a good story well portrayed — but it is not the true story of the period and its events here.