Euzhan Palcy is one of the most significant and pioneering Black female filmmakers in history, but her name isn’t known as widely as you’d expect. For this week’s instalment of #WomenWednesdays throughout #BlackHistoryMonth, celebrating the impact of Black female filmmakers across history, we’re spotlighting this unsung hero and her unique contribution to the film industry.
Image credits © Caribbean Beat
Palcy was born in Martinique, in the French West Indies, and grew up studying the classic films of Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. It was when she moved to Paris to attend university in the 1970s that she first began making films, eventually helming her debut feature ‘Sugar Cane Alley’ in 1985. It was shot for less than $1 million, and was made with the support and encouragement of legendary French director, François Truffaut, who had been Palcy’s mentor during her time in Paris. The film went on to win the prestigious César Award – the French equivalent of the Oscars – and put Palcy on the map as a fierce filmmaker to watch on the global scene.
Image credits © Home Manchester
It was with her second feature, ‘A Dry White Season’, that Palcy would make her way into the history books. With this film, Palcy became the first Black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio (MGM), as well as the first Black filmmaker to direct a film that was nominated for an Academy Award. Palcy was originally reluctant to enter the Hollywood system, as she was wary about the possible limitations on her creative expression:
I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do what I really wanted to do [in Hollywood]. I knew why I was making movies, and I knew the kind of movies that Hollywood was making. There was no room for Black folks there. Or if there was room, there was always going to be bad characters: not nice people or not intelligent people. I didn’t want to go through that.
The studios wanted to work with me, but they didn’t want my ideas. I turned down so many projects, because I felt like if I did them, I would betray the reason I decided to be a filmmaker in the first place. I felt like when the machinery opened its doors to me, I had to fight! I felt that I had to try to convince them: Why don’t you want those stories? Our stories? They are universal!”
‘A Dry White Season’ was originally rejected by Warner Brothers, who were afraid to release another Apartheid film after Universal’s ‘Cry Freedom’ in 1987. Luckily the story was picked up by MGM, and went on to make history. The film is set in South Africa in the 1970s, at the height of Apartheid, and tells the story of an ignorant school teacher (Donald Sutherland), who finds himself at the centre of a fierce legal trial which challenges his core beliefs.
Image credits © Vulture
‘A Dry White Season’ is a bold investigation into the atrocities of racial injustice in South Africa, at a time when Apartheid was still being fiercely upheld in the country. The courageous film enraged the oppressive South African regime and was banned there upon its release. It also made Palcy the first and only woman to direct Marlon Brando in a film; his performance as lawyer Ian McKenzie earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
As one of the only Black females working in the upper echelons of Hollywood during the 80s, Palcy has spoken about her sense of isolation and her mistreatment by the traditional system:
I was the first Black female filmmaker working in Hollywood. I had to fight to make my point. And I did. I would only compromise to a certain extent. I was lonely! I was very lonely because I had no support. Nobody supported me.
Image credits © Outre-mer
After her pioneering breakthrough, Palcy stepped away from the bright lights of Hollywood, as she was finding it difficult to receive green lights from the big studios. Films with Black-leads were regularly rejected in Hollywood, and Palcy was unable to push through the stories she wanted to tell. Unwilling to compromise, she decided it was best to step away from the mainstream industry, and leave behind her incredible legacy which paved the way for generations of Black female filmmakers who have followed in her footsteps, including the other women we have been spotlighting this month on #WomenWednesdays. Instead of conforming to the narrow expectations of the studio system, or adapting her vision to popular demand, Palcy decided to focus solely on writing screenplays and developing the talent of young filmmakers:
I couldn’t compromise and betray the very reason why I decided to be a filmmaker. People would ask ‘why did she disappear?’. Then I explained to them the choice I made; they say it’s a waste of your talent. I say no, I would have hated myself and I would have been miserable. I may be crazy, but I can’t change how I am.
Image credits © Caribbean Heritage Magazine
This determination and strength of mind is one of the many reasons why we admire Euzhan Palcy, and why we’ve chosen to shine a light on her incredible, pioneering career this week for #WomenWednesdays. Help us to keep this conversation going by sharing this post on social media, and join us next week for #WomenWednesdays throughout #BlackHistoryMonth.