BY JAMES GREENBERG
When Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley burst onto the international film scene in 1983, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, there were no black women directing movies in mainstream Hollywood. Six years later, when she made A Dry White Season for MGM, she became the first black woman to direct a film for a major studio. As a longtime voice for change in the industry, Palcy, still outspoken and working, remains an inspiration and role model to a new generation of black women directors. "I want to believe that things are moving along differently now," says Palcy. "But we’ll see."
Palcy’s journey to Hollywood from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique seems like a fairy tale, even to her. There were no filmmakers in Martinique, but at a very early age "I developed an attraction for films and I knew when I was 10 or 11 that I wanted to make movies," she says. "Sometimes I would tell people and they wouldn’t understand that. They all thought that I was talking about being an actress. I said, ’No, no, no.’"
Fortunately, her father was a feminist ahead of his time and encouraged his daughter’s artistic longing. People would sometimes leave the island and go to France to become doctors or lawyers, but after clandestinely teaching herself how to use a 16 mm camera and making a short film for the local television station, Palcy embarked for Paris, at the age of 20, to study film and literature. Palcy had grown up watching American films in Martinique, with barely a black face to be seen on the screen. When there was, the local theater owner would raise the prices because people were so desperate to see someone who looked like them. Palcy brought with her a "creative anger" to tell her story and the story of people she knew.
In Paris, Palcy wrote a screenplay for Sugar Cane Alley, a book she had loved and identified with as a child about black village life in Martinique and a poor, ambitious student who struggles to get out. Every week she would read new scenes to her school chums, and one of them, it turned out, was friends with François Truffaut’s daughter. "Laura said, ’Euzhan, you know, you have to give me your script. I’ll give it to Dad and he might give you some advice,’" recalls Palcy. "A week later, she said, ’Dad wants to see you.’"
Palcy could barely imagine such a thing—Truffaut was one of her filmmaking heroes. He gave her some advice about structure but said the script needed very little work. He became her mentor and godfather of the project. In order for her to get a grant from the French Ministry of Culture, Truffaut served the largely ceremonial role of technical advisor on the film, and then backed her up when the distributor tried to cut chunks out of it.
Set largely in the rows of shack houses around the cane fields of Martinique in the 1930s, the film captured the everyday discoveries and hardships of life from a child’s point of view with an affectionate and clear-eyed touch that echoed Truffaut’s feeling for kids.
Shooting in Martinique with only three professional actors, Palcy developed a technique for working with nonprofessionals that she would use to create a sense of realism in all her films. "If I need a teacher or I need somebody who is a cleaning lady," she says, "I will go and look for somebody who does that in real life. I explain the situation. I tell the person the entire story so she or he knows exactly why they’re there, why I’m asking them to do this. And I’ll say, ’OK, just do your work and don’t look at the camera.’"
Palcy insisted on a two-week rehearsal period, as she does on all of her films, and brought these random souls together and trained them to create a believable community. The result was a simple and moving evocation of a specific time and place. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said, "Every once in a while a movie will come out of nowhere. The actors will be people we’ve never seen before, the location will be an unfamiliar one, the director’s name will be brand new, and everything will fit together so naturally that we wonder where these people have been all their lives."
The international acclaim for the film made Palcy the hot director of the moment, and of course, Hollywood came calling. But Palcy had no interest in working in America. "I never thought that I would fit in," she says. "I never thought that Hollywood would be a place for me. So I was not attracted at all."
The invitations continued, and when she was attending the Sundance Directors Lab, she showed Robert Redford a stack of unanswered letters she had received from Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher. "I didn’t want to be miserable," recalls Palcy. "I didn’t want to be hurt. That was the key. And Redford said, ’You are a strong girl. You know what you want. You need to go and check it out. If you don’t like it, you go home.’"
Palcy flew to Los Angeles to meet with Fisher and proposed that she direct her friend Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. Fisher said it was already spoken for (by Steven Spielberg); was there nothing else they could do together? Palcy then produced a copy of South African novelist André Brink’s powerful anti-apartheid book A Dry White Season.
While Fisher read the book, Palcy was chauffeured around L.A. for a week and met with a cadre of female producers. Finally, Fisher agreed to make the film. "Lucy said, ’I want you to be happy. I want you to enjoy your experience with us.’ That was incredible because I know that it’s not always like that for people," says Palcy. "My experience in Hollywood was something so different. Maybe because [Fisher] knew that I was reluctant to come and work there when everybody was dying to get in."
However, after Universal released another apartheid film, Cry Freedom, in 1987, executives at Warner Bros. decided that one film about South Africa was enough and killed A Dry White Season. With much petitioning from all involved, the studio eventually agreed to give it up—for a price. Looking for a new backer, Palcy pitched her vision to Alan Ladd Jr. at MGM.
She knew exactly how she wanted to make her film and wasn’t going to waver from that. She told Ladd she wasn’t doing a film about a white man saving black people. "I said this is a story about two families and what happens when a white person sees the light of the truth and can’t pretend anymore." Ladd bought in and the project started up again.
Palcy had specific casting ideas, too. Paul Newman, she says, was eager to play the central role of du Toit, a teacher and father of two whose eyes are opened to the brutality and injustice of apartheid during the Soweto riots of 1976. But Palcy explained to the studio that Newman’s star power would overshadow the story and that Donald Sutherland was the better choice. Again, MGM agreed.
And for the minor but critical role of a lawyer who futilely argues the case of a black youth brutally murdered by the police, Palcy set herself the Herculean task of getting Marlon Brando, who hadn’t worked in nine years. In this, too, she succeeded, ultimately befriending Brando and involving him in the cause. In the end, he worked for free and donated his salary to anti-apartheid groups.
For authenticity, Palcy insisted on using black South African actors, including the great stage actor Zakes Mokae, rather than African-American actors. After doing some undercover research in Soweto, Palcy shot in Zimbabwe and Pinewood Studios outside London. She was no more intimidated working with Brando than she was working with scores of nonprofessional actors. The first day of shooting with Brando was a scene in which he is dragged out of the courtroom by guards for showing his contempt for the legal system. Palcy was unhappy with the performance. "My producer, Paula Weinstein, was standing next to me, and said, ’Where are you going?’ I said, ’This is shit. I’m going to tell him to do it again.’ She said, ’This is Brando, Euzhan, this is Brando.’ And I said, ’So what? He does expect me to direct him. He knows that this is bad.’"
Brando and Palcy never did agree on that scene. When Palcy took it out of her cut of the film, fearing it would seem unintentionally humorous and take people out of the story, Brando was furious. He tried to get MGM to restore the scene. Palcy was apprehensive, because unlike in France, she didn’t have the final cut. But the studio stood up for its director. "They told Marlon, ’If she doesn’t want the scene to be there, it won’t be there. This is her movie.’ It was quite extraordinary," says Palcy.
Brando was somewhat mollified when the film opened to largely favorable reviews and he received an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. But despite the success of A Dry White Season, Palcy was unable to get another project going in Hollywood.
One of her passion projects at the time was the story of Bessie Coleman, a pioneer in early aviation and the first African-American to get an international pilot’s license. Palcy recalls a studio executive telling her, "Nobody here will ever make that movie because she’s black and she’s female and she’s a lead. Put it in a drawer, work on something else, Euzhan. Don’t waste your time. They’re not ready for that."
The studios, she says, were happy to work with her as long as she was telling stories with white heroes, but Palcy was committed to telling black stories. "If it was a story that made the studio happy and made me happy, I have no problem with that, but not if I think it will hurt the film. That’s a decision that I made early on. It’s a difficult one, because when you do that you can starve, too. You can spend years waiting and doing nothing."
Instead, Palcy decided it was time to go back to Europe and develop projects there. As a salve for the raw emotions of A Dry White Season, she directed Siméon (1992), a lighthearted fantasy about rascally Martinique musicians. She made a documentary about the Caribbean poet and activist Aimé Césaire and did a period miniseries for French TV. After joining the Directors Guild in 1997, she directed a TV movie for Disney, Ruby Bridges (1998), a true story about the first black girl to attend a public school in New Orleans, and a Showtime movie, The Killing Yard (2001), about the Attica prison riots in 1971. As a longtime fan of Hitchcock, Lang, and Wilder, Palcy says she can work in any genre, and to that end is back in Hollywood selectively developing projects, including love stories, comedies, and even a science fiction piece. The common denominator is that they are all black stories. But is the business any different now from the one she left some 25 years ago?
"I want to believe that there are people who are different at the studios, but, of course, there are people who will never like to produce a black film," says Palcy. "It’s a pity. I don’t get it because this country is just like a garden with all kinds of flowers, and some are being put on the table and the others are just left there."
What has changed for the better is that today’s generation of black women filmmakers are not alone, as Palcy was. She is proud of directors such as Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees. "I fought for that and now they are doing it. I paved the way for all those young filmmakers who are coming out now. What I like about directors like Ava DuVernay is that they say, ’OK, I made a film, but there are other filmmakers who came before me and I’ve learned from them.’"
The lesson Palcy most hopes to pass along is that directors should keep doing the work by any means necessary. "What I’m saying is that people need to keep making films. I mean, go outside [Hollywood], get some money wherever you can get it and make your films."
It’s always about the money, adds Palcy. "Maybe some projects by young black filmmakers will come out and be so successful that the studios will understand that you have to make them, and that will finally open the door without excluding anybody."
For now, Palcy is hopeful but doesn’t yet believe the industry as a whole sees the importance of change. "I’m not a dreamer," she says. "I spent many years here and I worked with six studios, so I know how they function. I know how decisions are made and why they are made. I was inside and I saw it, so I’m anything but a dreamer. But I hope [the studios] will understand that they need to open up to women, open up to black filmmakers, because they don’t know what they are missing."