LOS ANGELES (AP) — Director Euzhan Palcy has made history more than a few times in her four decades in the film business.
She was the first black woman to direct a major studio-produced film (MGM’s “A Dry White Season”), the first black female director of any gender to win the César in France, the first woman to win a Silver Lion of Venice (for Sugar Cane Alley), the only woman to direct Marlon Brando and the first black woman to lead an actor to an Oscar nomination (also Brando). She paved the way for a generation of black women filmmakers, from Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante to Regina Hall and Gina Prince-Bythewood, and most of the time it wasn’t easy or fun.
But she was driven by a belief she holds to this day: “I was born to make films.”
Now, after several years away from the business, she is ready to get back behind the camera at 64. And what better way to start a comeback than with an Oscar? On Saturday, Palcy will receive a statuette of honor in recognition of her services to motion pictures at the annual Governor’s Awards Gala. She will be celebrated alongside Australian director Peter Weir, songwriter Diane Warren and actor Michael J. Fox, recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the non-televised event.
“I felt like this was the right time for me to resurface,” Paris-based Palcy told The Associated Press. “I was ready.”
Born in Martinique in the French West Indies in 1958, Palcy had dedicated herself to filmmaking since she was 10, although it seemed like no one who did it at least successfully looked like her. Her imagination was fueled by Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and others. In the mid-1970s she went to Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne and received a master’s degree from the renowned Louis-Lumière-College in Paris film received. There she was encouraged by François Truffaut to pursue filmmaking further.
But she couldn’t find anyone to give her money for her first feature film, Sugar Cane Alley, even after winning an important grant from the French government that would normally attract the interest of funders. The film would be an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel about Martinique in the 1930s, the Africans working the sugar cane fields, and their white owners.
“I graduated from the most famous film school in France and that wasn’t enough,” Palcy said. “I was still black, I was still a woman and I was still young.”
Still, she managed to make Sugar Cane Alley from scratch, and it became a huge hit, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a César for Best First Feature. Most importantly for her, however, it resonated with the people of Martinique, who told her they had never seen each other on screen before.
“Most people point out that I was a pioneer. You say it doesn’t make you happy? And it’s not, but it’s hard, it’s hard to be a pioneer. People think it’s a big deal and great, but there’s nothing there and you pick a road and pave it. It takes a lot of tenacity, a lot of struggle, a lot of struggle, a lot of tears.
“I love the metaphor of a pregnant woman and pregnancy is so hard on her and it’s difficult to deliver this baby. Then when she does, she’s exhausted. That’s how I felt when Sugar Cane Alley came out. I couldn’t even enjoy the success of this film,” she said. “But it made me stronger and even more determined to fight for my stories.”
Hollywood took notice and the exciting new talent behind the camera. Robert Redford invited her to the Sundance Director’s Lab in 1984 and was to be a sounding board as more offers came in. Life was a whirlwind of ads and offers for a moment.
Lucy Fisher, executive director of Warner Bros., flew them to Los Angeles and gave them a warm welcome to try to get them to do a movie with them. Palcy asked about an adaptation of The Color Purple, although he was politely told that Steven Spielberg had already considered it. She chose “A Dry White Season”. The film nearly fell apart, however, when Warner Bros. decided, following the release of Universal’s “Cry Freedom,” that two apartheid films were too many. MGM stepped in to do it.
Palcy has always been steadfast in her vision. Paul Newman was keen to be in the film, but she was set on Donald Sutherland. She also convinced Brando, who had been retired for nine years, to take a role. It earned him his eighth and final Oscar nomination.
After that, however, Hollywood got mixed up. She directed Ruby Bridges for The Wonderful World of Disney and The Killing Yard, a TV movie about the Attica prison riots. But then, about a decade ago, she decided she had to leave. She’d heard a few too many times that black movies didn’t sell. And she was asked to do a few too many films that didn’t appeal to her.
“I thought I couldn’t betray my ideals,” she said. “So I thought I’d go out and put my energy into helping young filmmakers so I don’t waste my time. I was just waiting for the right time to come back.”
In the years that followed, she received many letters and emails from people asking where she was and why she wasn’t making films. Some of her films have also been given a second life: A Dry White Season has been restored by Criterion and Ruby Bridges has streamed on Disney+.
“My work is not for yesterday’s people,” she said. “My work is for people of the new generation.”
Then, earlier this year, she felt like now was the time to come back. Shortly thereafter she received an award in France and 24 hours later the call for the honorary Oscar.
“I said, ‘My God, what’s going on?’ It was worth the sadness and struggle I had inside of not being able to do my films,” she said.
Now she just hopes people don’t pigeonhole her and think she’s just a “political filmmaker.”
“I want to do all kinds of films,” she said. “I can do any genre.”
Palcy wants to make one thing clear: while she’s open about the struggles and adversities she’s faced, she wants people to know that she’s also a very positive person.
“It wasn’t a complaint,” she says. “But if they ask me about it, I’ll be honest.”
Follow AP film writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.
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