Caribbean Heritage Organization Trailblazer Honoree
When you are lucky enough to speak one on one with Euzhan Palcy, her passion to fight for justice in humanity becomes wholly evident and it quickly becomes clear that her weapon of choice is film making.
As a filmmaker, she made history by the time she was 30 when she became the first black female director to do a major motion picture at a Hollywood studio when she directed A Dry White Season, which depicted the horrors of apartheid. Palcy fought Jim Crow segregation by directing Ruby Bridges for Disney. She exposed the inhumane treatment of inmates in the U.S. prison system with The Killing Yard for Showtime.
September of this year, will mark the 30th anniversary release of A Dry White Season. It will be celebrated with a special DVD release of the film for which Marlon Brando received his last Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With this film, Palcy quietly made history again as the only female to ever direct the celebrated actor after convincing Brando to come out of decade-long hiatus.
For Palcy, the film, which was made during the height of apartheid, marked her commitment to giving black stories a voice in a manner that was borne out of complete authenticity. “I knew I was not making a fictional piece. I was making a movie to open people’s eyes and minds by portraying the real thing. And there is not a piece of fiction in that story because apartheid was a crucial tough, ugly reality.”
As such, in a move of unwavering conviction to the truth, Palcy put her life at risk to make the experience of apartheid real for the viewer. “I needed to give the South African people a voice. I wanted the whole world to see how they walk, how they cry, and to see their anguish. I wanted people to see who they are.” So Palcy was insistent on hiring South African actors and yet knew the government would not allow the people to participate. In keeping with her commitment and after talking to her family about going into the country and possibly not making it out, Palcy arranged for the Black South African cast to leave South Africa in secret. “I knew my life was in danger and that I could get killed at any time, I didn’t care. I said to myself, how many people, to end slavery, put their lives at stake and died so that others could be free? All I knew is that I had to do it. When you are willing to risk your life for your art, you cannot accept compromise.”
The film went on to earn worldwide critical acclaim and Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film.
This commitment to reflect her authentic voice through stories finds its roots in her upbringing.
By the time she was ten, Palcy knew she wanted to make films. Although she was swept up by the magic of movies as she came of age, she became disappointed by the dearth of Blacks in the pictures. “I decided to be a filmmaker because I was sick of seeing my people not being on the screen and when they were in films, they would be in terrible parts, degrading parts. I could not stand that anymore. So, I made a promise to myself. I want to change that. I want to prove that it is possible that we have rich stories we should be sharing.”
Palcy’s first two movies set the tone for the type of films she chooses to make. At 25, Palcy, who was born and raised on the French Caribbean Island of Martinique, became the first director from Martinique by producing and directing Sugar Cane Alley, an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s novel, La Rue Cases-Nègres. It tells the tale of the antics and struggles of a black boy growing up in post-slavery Martinique. Palcy’s entire community stood behind her while she helmed the project. The picture went on to earn numerous accolades including making her the first French female director and the first Black person to ever win the Cesar Award, the highest French film honor bestowed upon her freshman effort.
Then Hollywood came knocking. “I was fortunate they were the ones who called me. Robert Redford put me on the plane and brought me to them. I had the most interesting relationship when I did my first film in Hollywood.”
After the critical success of A Dry White Season, Palcy’s convictions to tell Black stories was put to the test. She thought that because Hollywood had already opened the door for her that she would be able to do more projects with and about black people. Not so. “I had a hard time, not because I was female; it was not because I was young or because I was black. The hard time was my wanting to direct black stories. I kept getting told that those stories are not bankable.” Palcy dug down deep. “The studios kept throwing their stories at me, and I said no I’m not going to do that. You won’t produce mine. I am not going to direct yours.”
The studios would not make the commitment to make black films and Palcy remained steadfast to tell Black stories which are just as universal as any others, even though Hollywood couldn’t see the immediate value in it. “As a filmmaker and a black human being, I had to take a stand. I believe that as filmmakers we must use our art to serve causes and to help people. So they may open their eyes and realize something is wrong. We are pedagogues; we are sometimes visionaries. We are doing this job not just to entertain, make people laugh and have a good time.”
“You know who you are. You know where you came from and you know your history, so if somebody puts a fence in front of you and tells you, no, you can’t go there. Jump over that fence. Fly! Fly!” -Euzhan Palcy’s Grandmother
At the time, Palcy ended up losing out on numerous lucrative opportunities, but she found the courage to stand by her convictions. Palcy said it was her grandmother who would always remind her that “You know who you are. You know where you came from and you know your history, so if somebody puts a fence in front of you and tells you, no, you can’t go there. Jump over that fence. Fly! Fly!”
Despite the roadblocks to her heart projects, Palcy pushed forward and was able to go state to state appealing to organizations like the Black Caucus to support black productions. She says she got her strength to stand on who she was and her convictions from being raised in the Caribbean. It helped her to have a sense of self and of her people that helped her along the way. Palcy says it’s “having a sense of yourself and your people, knowing your history and having parents who taught you what was important and what your priorities should be.”
Despite losing out on numerous lucrative opportunities because of her convictions to telling Black stories, Palcy says she has been enriched in other ways. Like Spike Lee, Palcy knows that her tenacity has opened the doors for the next generation of black filmmakers to capture the life of the African diaspora in an authentic way and has enjoyed the opportunity to teach other filmmakers around the world who are making the field more inclusive.
Most recently, Palcy’s was awarded the Order of the Companions of O.R Tambo in Silver by the South African government, the highest honor in South Africa for a foreign dignitary, for her distinguished efforts to humanity.
As Palcy moves into what’s next, she talks with excitement about her next projects. First on her plate she is working to bring to life the story of black female aviator Bessie Coleman. With the push of her grandmother’s urgings “Fly! Fly!” We will continue to see her brilliant spirit soaring above the clouds for many years ahead.
Article written by Simone Blake and Amani Latimer.