Thursday, May 2024

"With my camera I don’t shoot, I heal. I try to repair the wounds of history. One film at a time." - Euzhan Palcy

As 2024's award season approaches, anticipation builds among actors, writers, producers, and directors for coveted nominations. Despite progress, there's an unfortunate reluctance in Hollywood to honor Black creatives with major awards. While occasional nods are given, the industry still hesitates to recognize talents in categories like Best Lead Actress or Best Director.

Reflecting on the last 22 years since Halle Berry's groundbreaking Oscar win, no other Black woman has claimed the Best Lead Actress award. Similarly, despite nominations for her exceptional work in films like "Selma," Director Ava Duvernay was notably snubbed by the Academy for a Best Director nomination, though "Selma" was nominated in the Best Picture category.

"Euzhan Palcy reminds us that history, however harsh, must be known and faced in order to create emancipated futures." - Ava Duvernay

So that brings us to the remarkable director Euzhan Palcy, a film director, writer and producer from Martinique, French West Indies. In 1983, she directed Sugar Cane Alley (Rue Cases Nègres) putting the French West Indies on cinema’s world stages. She is the first Black female director to secure backing by a major Hollywood studio (MGM) for her film "A Dry White Season." It's both astonishing, yet sadly predictable, how many self-proclaimed film buffs and film enthusiasts overlook the contributions and achievements of this immensely talented woman.

Euzhan Palcy is also the only female filmmaker to have directed Marlon Brando, whom she brought back to the screen after a 9 year hiatus, alongside Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Janet Suzman and Jürgen Prochnow. To make an accurate portrait, she risked her life and traveled to South Africa, defying the secret services of the apartheid regime with the help of Dr. Nthato Motlana, Nelson Mandela’s physician and friend who smuggled her in Soweto. She posed as an undercover recording artist looking for choristers while she interviewed secretly, in reality, the victims of the apartheid regime.

To give a voice to oppressed South Africans, she convinced the studio to hire an all-South-African black cast (Zakes Mokae, Winston Ntshona, John Kani, Thoko Ntshinga). MGM released "A Dry White Season" in September 1989. The South Africa regime prohibited the film, enraged by the truths exposed to what they were doing to the people who opposed them. Euzhan Palcy is the only woman and the only Black director (male or female) who succeeded to direct an anti-apartheid narrative feature film during Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison.

She received the Orson Welles award for this film in Los Angeles in 1989. 

After his historic release from Robben Island in 1990, the newly elected President Mandela watched the film and invited her to South Africa in 1995 (during the first anniversary of his election). While here she directed and produced the never before seen interview titled My Chat with President Nelson Mandela.

Palcy is the first Black director (male or female) to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination and the first Black person to win a César Award (French Academy Award), the highest French film award given, as well as being the first Black director to win a Venice Film Festival Award (Silver Lion). Palcy's a hidden gem, and though she's not a household name, her work is no less notable.

Some of her other projects and accomplishments include: In 1990, she received a Candace Award for Trailblazing from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. In 1994, she was honored with the distinction of Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite (Knight in the National Order Merit) from French President François Mitterrand. She was presented with the Sojourner Truth Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and in 2004, she was the recipient of the famous French Medal of Honor from French President Jacques Chirac.

In 1992, she wrote and directed the musical and fantasy film Siméon with Kassav, the Godfathers of Zouk Music. Afterwards she filmed the documentary trilogy "Aimé Césaire : A Voice For History" - 1994, reissued in 2006 as "Aimé Césaire : A Voice For The 21st Century" and directed and co-produced "Ruby Bridges" (Disney, 1998). At the movie’s premiere, President Bill Clinton and Disney CEO Michael Eisner introduced the movie. The film "The Killing Yard" (Paramount/Showtime) followed in 2001. She received a Silver Gavel Award for “Best Film About Justice” by The American Bar Association. Her films have undoubtedly had a huge impact initiating humanitarian efforts globally for causes extremely important to her core values as a filmmaker and person. She is currently a distinguished recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her work and social causes.

In 2006, she directed the French documentary "Parcours de Dissidents" (The Journey Of The Dissidents) which tells the incredible story of 5,000 French West Indians, young fighters (boys and girls) during World War II. Her struggle for their national recognition was officially acknowledged by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy who presented to her France’s highest award : the Legion of Honor on behalf of all those courageous war veterans.

In 2007, she directed the historical drama, "The Brides Of Bourbon Island" (Les Mariées de L'Île Bourbon), about the colonization of the "Reunion Island" during the 17th century. That same year to mark the Bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition of Slave Trade Act in the UK, The National Maritime Museum of London screened her movie "Sugar Cane Alley" (Rue Cases Nègres)In a poll by the BBC/British Film Institute’ citing The 100 most Iconic Black Screen Icons of the Last 100 years, Euzhan Palcy ranked among the top three in both the female and director's categories.

In 2011, President Sarkozy asked her to direct the film that launched France’s National Tribute to Aimé Cesaire at the Pantheon ; Cannes Film Festival and the MoMA (New York City's Museum of Modern Art) honored her for this work. Later that year, Palcy was decorated with the Officer Medal of National Order of Merit by President Sarkozy. 

In 2013, Euzhan Palcy was awarded the Honorary Henri Langlois World Cinema Prize. The same year she presided FESPACO (Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagougou) Grand Jury. It is a first for a woman. Siméon is part of the Cannes Classics official selection to celebrate Aimé Césaire's centenary of birth.

On June 1, 2014 French President Francois Hollande hosted the presidential screening of "Parcours de Dissidents" (The Journey Of The Dissidents) at the Elysée Palace  to launch the National Tribute to "the Dissidents" and the 70th anniversary of  WWII Normandy and Provence landings. The heros in her film aka 'The Dissidents'  received a full week of tributes at the Invalides, the National Assembly, the Senate, the Panthéon and in Normandy.

On April 28, Freedom Day 2017, the Republic of South Africa bestowed upon Euzhan Palcy the Order of the Companions of Oliver Reginald Tambo “for her excellent contribution to the liberation struggle by exposing South African social injustices through an international film (A Dry White Season) that strengthened the revolution against apartheid”. This order is the highest honor in South Africa for a foreign dignitary. 

On March 8, 2018, The Telegraph included Euzhan in its all-time list of 35 Women who changed the history of cinema while The International Slavery Museum of Liverpool inducted her on its Black Achievers Wall as part of its commemoration of the centennial of the women's vote.

For Women's Month 2019, The Wrap included Euzhan Palcy in its all-time list of "17 Women Who Revolutionized Hollywood". 

For Women's Month 2021 Toronto International Film Festival made Euzhan Palcy its new "Share Her Journey Ambassador"

Euzhan Palcy‘s films have undoubtedly had a huge impact initiating humanitarian efforts globally for causes extremely important to her core values as a filmmaker and a person. Respected film critic Roger Ebert once said of Palcy - “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.”

She manages her time between her humanitarian work (helping disabled or very ill young people to rebuild themselves and achieve their dreams) and the development of new European and American film projects. 

Euzhan Palcy holds the keys to the cities of New York, Atlanta, New Orleans and Sarassota, Fl. In France, she is a distinguished recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her work and social causes. A high school, a movie theater and a road bear her name. 

Check out Euzhan Palcy's website:

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