Marie-Clothide Bissainthe , better known as Toto Bissainthe, was born in 1934 in Cap Haitian, Haiti and went on to become of the most acclaimed actresses and singers coming out of the island. Bissainthe’s career brought her all over the globe, including New York, Martinique, France (where she lived for a considerable period of her life), Italy, and Africa. In 1959, she starred as Bessie Vance in the film Les Tripes au Soleil, which had the then-taboo subject of interracial relationships as the story’s plot. While in France, she became a member of Les Griots, a theatrical troupe made up of black actors in Paris. Bissainthe had several significant roles in their staged plays, including a French language adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
In the late 60s, her career took her to Zaire, where she starred in Michel Matraini’s film Bajazet, based on a play by Jean Racine.
She worked with the legendary Senegalese director on his 1966 film Black Girl (Le Noire de), and although she is never seen in the movie, her booming, signature voice narrates the groundbreaking movie about the life of a black woman servant in France. Nearly a decade later, she had a role in “L’homme au Contrat”, a TV series airing on French television. She was also recruited for a role in the 1974 film West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté, which was a co-production of France, Algeria, and Mauritania filmmakers. This role gave her the opportunity to act alongside the French-Haitian actress Elsie Haas, who would later make a name for herself as a writer-director.
In 1986, she returned to Haiti permanently after having had visited the country only sporadically over the years, since her departure in 1950. Bissainthe was a true nomad, having lived everywhere practically including the Dominican Republic and Martinique in the late 70s and early 80s.
While Bissainthe was to be known as a first-class actress, her career as a singer is not to be ignored. One of her best known songs is “Lamize Pa Dous”, traditional ballad that spoke of her people’s plight. She released several albums including Chants Populaires D’Haiti, a collection of traditional folks songs, and Rasanbleman, which followed the same musical direction.
Probably the best showcase for Bissainthe’s talent as an actress were her roles in two Raoul Peck films: Haitian Corner and L’Homme Sur Les Quais. In the first, she played the compassionate mother of a Haitian immigrant in Brooklyn, and in the other she played the elite matriarch Camille Desrouilleres, who stood staunchly and bravely in the face of persecution from a local military bully in 1960s Haiti. The cast also included Patrick Rameau, who had played her son in Haitian Corner, as well as other seasoned Haitian actors Mireille Metellus and Ailo Auguste, as well as the French actor Albert Delpy and the Martinique actor Jean-Michel Martial. The award-winning film was critical praised worldwide, and received a nomination for the Golden Palm award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Less than a year of having her movie triumph in L’Homme Sur Les Quais, Bissainthe succumbed to cancer in her home in Petionville.
To any actress who knows what Bissainthe stood for, she is an inspiration, and a model to follow.