The Parsley Massacre was a week-long mass killing of Haitians on the Dominican-Haitian border from October 2 to 8, 1937. On the order of dictator Rafael Trujillo, the massacre had been suppressed in media coverage and official discourse; until Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, it was officially regarded as an isolated farmer uprising. What transpired on those seven days is an atrocity born out of deep hatred and institutional othering of the Haitian people. This is the notable quality of Parsley; it utilizes evocative cinematography with a haunting narrative to shed light on such a dark moment in history.
Parsley as a story is about a couple, Marie (Cyndie Lundy) and Frank (Ramón Emilio Candelario), navigating through the beginnings of the massacre while expecting a baby. Although their story is at the center of the plot, the film is more concerned with the unfolding of the massacre than the specifics of their life. To be blunt, Parsley is a difficult watch. José María Cabral does not hold anything back in depicting the brutality of Trujillo’s regime. Blood, dismemberment, and pleas for mercy are on full display, emphasizing the ruthlessness of the military’s actions. Just after the killing begins, a montage shows the dead staring straight into the camera lens. The film revolves around the pregnant Marie and her husband trying to survive, but Parsley demands that audiences bear witness to the state-sanctioned genocide that has plagued the island of Hispaniola for nearly a century.
A week after the massacre, pressure was mounting from Haitian citizens for Haiti’s president, Sténio Vincent, to seek recompense from the Dominican government. Following an American investigation, it was agreed that $750,000 would be paid by Trujillo to Haiti. However, due to willful neglect, only $525,000 was paid, which was never to be seen by the descendants of victims who fled during the killings. Trujillo defended the massacre as a necessary evil to suppress the undesirable Haitian migration into the country. This would make his extreme xenophobia and racism a clarion call for Dominican nationalists that would further legitimize Trujillo as the de facto ruler for the next 24 years.
Hope can be found, albeit minor, in characters like Germán (Pavel Marcano), a Dominican officer who grew up with Frank. Germán warns Frank to leave for Haiti as the military is going to raid the village that evening. But Frank underestimates the wrath of Trujillo. He believes that he and Marie will be safe because he is Dominican-born. Miguelina (Isabel Spencer), a Dominican housemaid for the family that owns the land, gives respite to Marie when her water breaks. Marie does not want her child to be born at such a dire moment. Yet, in a fatalistic Dominican way, Miguelina says “The time of birth, you nor I can decide that.” In the face of atrocities, these people’s actions are small articulations of resistance against the tyranny of Trujillo’s massacre.
Conversely, the film’s graphic depictions of violence invoke the all-too-common film trope of “Black pain,” where any threat posed to the central characters is intertwined with racism. Many have pointed out that regurgitating trauma does nothing for social equity because the pain that Black communities have endured has become a ubiquitous image. Director Cabral’s intention to bring a horrific history front and center is much needed for a massacre that remains a footnote in Dominican society. However, the same effect can be achieved without vividly recreating the grisly violence of the atrocity. (One powerful example is Michael Haneke’s 2009 film The White Ribbon.) The issue is not acknowledging the violence, but rather, that when a historical event is represented only through it, violence comes to define the event. Cabral gestures to further investigation into the Parsley massacre with the addition at the ending: “No international court dealt with the ‘Parsley’ Genocide.” There is no official record of how many people were murdered but it is estimated at around 4,000 to 20,000.
Could the story of the Parsley massacre have been told as a documentary about the Border of Lights organization, which commemorates the massacre yearly with scripted scenes of historical dramatization (akin to the HBO docuseries Exterminate All The Brutes)? Perhaps. But that is not the film that will gain recognition and get people to the theater. There is a larger conversation to be had about the very real, very visible anti-Blackness that persists in the Dominican Republic, which is palpable in the film, even though the events take place more than 80 years ago. If Parsley will draw more attention and concern to these issues, then it is worth seeing.
Parsley is screening as part of the AFI Latin American Film Festival (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland) on October 1 and 2.