Bowing to external pressure (and probably seeing a buck to be earned), Hollywood is right in the middle of a diversity kick, with more women and people of colour on screen and behind the camera than ever before. Are things perfect? Of course not, but it certainly appears that the foundations and initial structures are being put in place which will hopefully allow future audiences to enjoy storytelling and filmmaking from a wider variety of perspectives.
All of which makes it feel like the right time to celebrate the fascinating career and films of Euzhan Palcy, who occupies a very important place in the circuitously snaking annals of film history. Though now a largely forgotten feat, Euzhan Palcy was indeed the first black woman to ever direct a major feature film for a Hollywood studio. And if you’re thinking that feat is forgotten because it happened so long ago, think again. It was only in 1989 (not really that far back in the past) that MGM released Euzhan Palcy’s second feature, A Dry White Season, instantly sealing the director’s place in film history.
Born in Martinique in The French West Indies in 1958. Euzhan Palcy grew up obsessively watching films, and had already decided by the tender age of just ten that she wanted to become a filmmaker. Palcy studied at a local college, and eventually found work with a Martinique TV network, where the burgeoning poet and songwriter was invited to host a weekly poetry programme. While working on the TV network, Palcy wrote and directed her first film in 1975 with the short La Messagère (The Messenger). Signalling the director’s future fascination with the society and culture that surrounded her, the film explores the lives of workers on a banana plantation, and marked the first West Indian production mounted in Martinique.
After making a minor mark with The Messenger, Palcy left for Paris, where she studied literature, theatre, archaeology, cinematography and film. Always burning with a desire to tell stories that pulsed with meaning and meaningfulness, Palcy was deeply inspired by Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel, Black Shack Alley. “I discovered the novel when I was fourteen,” Palcy has said of the effect that the book had on her. “It was the first time I read a novel by a black man, a black of my country, a black who was speaking about poor people.”
Palcy set about adapting the novel herself, and with the support of revered French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, eventually raised enough money from the French government to mount her modest, low budget debut feature film. Released in 1983, Sugar Cane Alley is a rare glimpse into a culture never before depicted with such accuracy, sensitivity and authenticity on screen. Set in Martinique in 1931, when the country was under French colonial rule, the film follows an impoverished eleven-year-old boy whose natural intelligence may see him able to rise above the poverty that surrounds him by attending school in the capital courtesy of a much sought after scholarship.
Poetic and heart-warming but too hard-edged and honest to ever be sentimental, Sugar Cane Alley was widely praised upon its release, and the film saw Palcy feted at festivals around the world. At the time, there literally had not been another film like it. “When I was ten years old as a young girl in Martinique, I knew that I wanted to make films,” Palcy said at The London Film Festival in 2018. “I didn’t want to be an actress. I wanted to be on the other side of the camera. I wanted to see our people on the screen, because at that time, there were not many. There were very few black people in films, and when you would see them on screen, it would always be in very degrading roles or parts. That’s why I wanted to do Sugar Cane Alley.”
While there was much heat around Euzhan Palcy, and the debut director was offered many projects, she was set on making a film about Apartheid in South Africa, which was hardly of huge appeal to most studios and financiers. Eventually, however, MGM put up the backing for Palcy’s adaptation of Andre P. Brink’s novel A Dry White Season, on which the director had much support from Hollywood figurehead Robert Redford, who had invited Palcy to his Sundance Institute, and then assisted her in making all the right contacts in Hollywood. “He was like a godfather to me,” Palcy told Shadow & Act.
The director assembled a fine cast for A Dry White Season, with Donald Sutherland delivering a superb performance as Ben Du Toit, a decent but politically distant South African schoolteacher whose eyes are opened to the horrors and injustices of his home country when the son of his gardener (the great Zakes Mokae gives a wonderfully moving performance) is beaten and abducted by the secret police. Also featuring terrific supporting turns from Susan Sarandon, Jurgen Prochnow and a dragged-from-retirement Marlon Brando (wonderfully magisterial as a passionate lawyer), A Dry White Season is a powerful look at the divisions that plague South Africa.
“It was very, very important to me to do A Dry White Season,” Palcy said at The London Film Festival in 2018. “I did it as a statement, and also to give the black South African people a voice by doing something that had not been done before, which was giving real black South African actors a chance to portray themselves on screen. That was not negotiable for me; it was all or nothing. I won that battle with the studio, and I am very proud of that.”
Disappointingly, A Dry White Season would mark Palcy’s only US studio-backed film. The director circled a number of other projects (she was offered a film on Malcolm X way before Spike Lee mounted his epic, and was beaten to the punch on The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg), but nothing came to fruition. Palcy, however, has never described her experiences in Hollywood as wholly negative. “I was the first black female filmmaker working in Hollywood,” she told Vulture. “Every studio I worked with treated me like a queen. I fought with some of them, not all, but I had to fight to make my point. And I did. I would only compromise to a certain extent.”
Palcy returned to the West Indies for her third feature, which represented a massive left turn for the director. 1992’s Simeon is a giddy, vibrant, magical-realist musical a million miles away from the political brutality of A Dry White Season. The film follows Simeon (Jean-Claude Duverger), a respected and well-loved music teacher in a small village, who finds a kindred spirit in his star student Isidore (Jacob Desvarieux) that defies even death and tragedy.
“People tried to put me in a box like I was a militant, like I only do death movies,” Palcy told Mubi. “But I told them, ‘You don’t know me! Don’t try to put me in a box because you will fail!’ I’m not that. First of all, I’m Caribbean, and we deal with all kinds of stuff: comedy, drama…life is all of these, so my work is like that too. That’s why after A Dry White Season I can do a film like Siméon.”
Since Simeon, Palcy has been busy with activist and educational work, while also contributing to a number of documentary projects in Europe. She also returned to the US for two socially-minded telemovies, with The Killing Yard (starring Alan Alda and dealing tangentially with the infamous 1971 riot in Attica Prison) and Ruby Bridges (a Disney-backed drama about the fraught difficulty of school integration in the US).
A truly ground-breaking and pioneering figure in cinema history, who triumphed in putting images on the screen that had literally never been seen before, Euzhan Palcy has certainly been justifiably feted and awarded over the years, but even this handsome recognition does not come close to the kind of praise that she truly deserves. Everyone enjoying watching the face of Hollywood slowly begin to change owes this fine filmmaker a debt of gratitude…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.