Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere—but they must know they are great directors and trust they are great. — Roger Ebert
For this month’s Female Film Pioneer, I’m moving out of the silent era and into the present to feature a woman who is still currently active as a filmmaker: Euzhan Palcy. While not a part of developing the filmic art from its beginnings, her story is just too compelling to not profile.
She headed the first film making endevour in her native Martinique while still in her teens and then went on to become the first black female director to be produced by Hollywood as well as the first black filmmaker to win a César Award, the French Oscar. Although her she is a highly respected director and her films are critically acclaimed, she has had to battle the rampant racism and sexism inherent in the film industry and has never backed down. Her career has spanned three decades and her films are always made in the interest of social justice enacting social change. Even more impressive, she has managed to achieve all of this on her own terms, telling the stories that she wanted to.
Euzhan Palcy was born in 1958 on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, France. Her father Leon was a pineapple factory worker and her mother Romauld was the heir to one of Fort-de-France’s few affluent black families. When her mother was disinterested due to her marriage, Palcy’s father worked his way up through the factory’s hierarchy to earn enough for all six of his children to be educated in France.
Palcy had her sights set on being a film director from a young age. By 14, she had become angry from watching the poor representation of people of colour in American films, strengthening her resolve to make films about the people she knew. The lack of a film or theatre industry in Martinique did not deter her. Her career as a director began by writing and producing plays for her parents and performing them with her five siblings at the age of ten. By twelve she was writing poems and composing songs.
At 19, Palcy had already released a successful children’s album and was offered a poetry show on the local television channel. During this period, she wrote the television drama La Messangere and pitched it to the television station. The station head wasn’t interested in producing it, but Palcy wouldn’t take no for an answer. She produced the short film herself as well as taking directorial and acting duties and the whole community pitched in to fund the first film about the people of Martinique.
With her first film under her belt, Palcy decided it was time to leave home and do an apprenticeship abroad in Paris. She wrote the entrance exam to the Sorbonne, and was one of the 25/500 applicants accepted. Palcy completed her Master’s degree in French literature and also studied film at the Louis Lumiere School of Cinema where she specialized in cinematography. While she studied, she also worked as an assistant editor on films by young African filmmakers shooting in France and continued to write screenplays.
In 1975, she met Francois Truffaut through his daughter Laura who had given him Palcy’s script for Black Shack Alley by Martinique author Joseph Zobel. Truffaut became a major supporter of Palcy, and helped her to raise the funds to make her for feature La Rue Cases Negres (Black Shack Alley) (1983), the first feature ever produced in Martinique. Even with the help of a French film heavyweight, it took Palcy three years to raise the funds. Eventually, she funded the film with a grant from the French government and small donations from the people of Martinique, with whom the story resonated.
When I started out, there were three things that made film people look at me with condescension, I was young, I was black, and I was female. – Euzhan Palcy
The work paid off. The film was released to critical acclaim, playing for two years in Paris. Black Shack Alley earned fourteen international awards including a Silver Lion in Venice and the lead Darling Legitimus won the best actress award. Palcy also took home the Cesar Award for best first feature film.
Robert Redford handpicked her for the Sundance Talent Lab in 1984. The film’s success led to calls from Hollywood, but Palcy turned them down. “They called me, and very few black women directors are called to Hollywood. But they wanted me to do their stories. I said, I appreciate your interest, but I am a black filmmaker. Your other white filmmakers can do those stories.”
Her next project was a film on the apartheid based off a novel by Andre Brink. She knew that the film would never get funding unless the film had a white, male protagonist. Even with a white man at the centre of the film, it took Palcy seven years to finance A Dry White Season. No one in France was interested in financing it. Eventually she found an ally in producer Paula Weinstein, the daughter of female producing pioneer Hannah Weinstein. They took the project to Warner Brothers, but since Cry of Freedom (1987) had bombed at the box office, they weren’t interested in another project about South Africa. They then tried MGM, where Alan Ladd optioned the script.
Palcy’s dedication to her work and to the people she was portraying on screen was absolute. To research her film, she traveled undercover to South Africa to interview survivors of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. While there, she was shadowed by members of the South African Secret Service for the duration of her stay. Her passion for the project and her goal of helping to end the apartheid convinced Marlon Brando to end his self imposed retirement and appear in the film for free. This made Palcy the first black woman to direct a major Hollywood film and the only woman to ever direct Marlon Brando.
A Dry White Season was released in 1989. The film was banned in South Africa on it’s initial release.
After Palcy’s success abroad, she returned to Martinique to work on television and features and help develop the local industry. In 2000, a high school was founded in her name dedicated to the study of cinema. In 2004 she received the French Medal of Honor. In 2009 she was awarded the Officier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (Officer in the National Order of Merit) by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She is also a Citizen of Honor of six US cities.
Palcy is a true artist. She is driven by her activism and passion and refuses to compromise either for an easier ride. As a result, her work has opened doors for other women in the industry, particularly women of colour, by proving that it is possible to maintain your integrity and your voice in a society and an industry that consistently tells you your stories are not important and not worth telling. She has also helped to establish a legitimate film industry within Martinique and the Caribbean. Euzhan Palcy is an amazing film pioneer who is still working to break boundaries on her own terms.
The desire to communicate with others is what inspires me, looking for things that are hidden, emotions, images, sounds. Sometimes things are considered taboo, and with my camera, I bring them to light. . . . I’m French, yes, but before being French, I’m African Caribbean. Because of the themes that I’m choosing, my stories are talking about love, about struggle, about life, about hope, about dreams, and being a Black filmmaker…
—Euzhan Palcy, Infiniti in Black
Films You Should See
All of Palcy’s films are worth seeing for their socially conscious content and activist intentions. Defiantly see Black Shack Alley (also known as Sugar Cane Alley) and A Dry White Season.
Since Palcy’s work is contemporary, I’m not going to link to the full films here. However, her more prominent films are pretty easy to find at a local library or HMV. If you have a Toronto Public Library card, you can access A Dry White Season online.
Want to Know More?
Euzhan Palcy: Making Waves by Bruce Paddington in Caribbean Beat
Great piece from Lexi Alexander about Palcy
Trail Blazing Women: Euzhan Palcy