The first Black director to win a César Award. The first Black director to win an award at the Venice Film Festival. The first Black woman director of a film produced by a major Hollywood studio. For French West Indies filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, the “firsts” that she has accomplished are both numerous and substantial.
Speaking over Zoom from her home in Martinique earlier this week, the filmmaker and screenwriter is quick and determined in recounting her successes – not out of a sense of arrogance or self-importance but, rather, from a place of affirmation in the face of an industry that has long been too eager to discount her talent and abilities.
As the recently announced ambassador for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Share Her Journey initiative, which, since 2017, has campaigned to advance inclusion, accessibility and diversity in film for women filmmakers, Palcy is keen to use her new platform to continue what she sees as her life-long work.
“This is what I have been doing my whole career,” says. “From a young age I always knew that film was my passion. My father was the first feminist I knew and he always encouraged my work. It became my mission to make a difference and to show people who we are. I had so much love and beauty around me, so many people with dignity. I wanted the world to know about all of those things. To put my people on the map in a universal way, to tell our stories, and still today, that is my fight.”
Palcy cut her cinematic teeth with her first feature film, Sugar Cane Alley, the 1983 adaptation of fellow Martinican Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel La Rue Cases-Nègres, which – with her trademark humanism and poetic eye – tells the story of a poor Black family living on a Martinique sugar cane plantation in the 1930s. Despite substantial funding from France’s National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image, Palcy initially struggled to find support for her first project.
“I was an educated woman, ready to start filmmaking, and had the kind of [government] support that normally brought excited producers ready to back your film but, for me, no one wanted my baby. The characters were Black and I was Black, female, and young, and no one wanted any part of that.”
Through sheer coincidence, she came to find the mentorship of French New Wave auteur François Truffaut, who used what power and privilege he had to advance her vision and support her work.
“Meeting him was a dream that I never thought was possible,” she says. “He became my godfather. Anything I needed, anything he was able to do for me, he was there. He taught me how to handle things in the industry and the business. It was priceless.”
The film went on to find international praise, winning 17 awards from such prestigious cinematic institutions as the Venice Film Festival and the César Awards. Her success continued through to her lauded second feature, 1989′s apartheid drama A Dry White Season, whose adapted screenplay inspired star Marlon Brando to come out of retirement to work alongside her.
However, Palcy continued to feel the effects of the insidious anti-Blackness and sexism that governed the field of work she had so fiercely dedicated herself to.
“I was too much for Hollywood,” she shares. “It was very difficult being one of the rare Black women filmmakers. It still is. Years went by and people were asking ‘Where has she been? What is she doing? Why don’t we see more of her?’ I want people to know that I have been right where I always have been: struggling and fighting to make my films.”
Following the brilliant one-two punch of her first two films, Palcy, resolute in her vision, turned down multiple offers to direct Hollywood movies that featured white-centered narratives.
“I made a promise to myself at a young age that I would help to shape the future. I would open the door for more people, more black women, to be on screen and to be better portrayed. That’s why I decided to become a filmmaker. It was necessary. And these people couldn’t accept that. But they had no problem offering me their best white stories to tell,” she says. “It was an injustice. It was painful. I would think to myself, ‘What is wrong with these people that they would think that being Black and being a woman are handicaps?’ It was visceral for me. I just couldn’t do it. If people didn’t want the kind of people I wanted to tell stories about, that was it for me. I would say, thank you very much, goodbye.”
Asked whether she felt further mobilized by her anger, Palcy answers: “It was not just anger and frustration, but humiliation. When you realize that they are wasting your time – your years – by not letting you exercise your talents, it is devastating. It would be different if they were telling me that I wasn’t talented, that I wasn’t good at my job. But that’s not the case.”
In many ways, it further solidified the urgent need for her political and social commitments.
“I am not interested in politics, rather I am interested in the impact of politics on human beings,” she says. “How these politics affect their lives. I want to give over space for people to talk for themselves. I am fundamentally interested in the human being, the struggle to survive, our dreams, our desires.”
In a sphere that too often pushes Black women out through means of exclusion and exhaustion, it is no small feat that Palcy remains steadfast in her work.
“As pioneers, we sacrifice ourselves for the next generation. We hope that they don’t go through what we went through,” she says.
Her advocacy is ongoing and determined, including establishing a minimum quota of women new to the industry to work on each film she makes, as well as paying the way for young African and Caribbean filmmakers to train with her on set.
“I want more women to be in movies in every possible sense. In front of the camera and behind the camera. I have been fighting for that for years,” she says, laughing as she continues. “If they won’t let us in the door we will come in through the window!”
The filmmaker is eager, yet cautious, about the current cultural climate, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter and other Black-led activist movements.
“Things are moving in a positive direction now – or, at least, I want to believe that. I hope that the projects I am working on will be more welcome now. I’m very hopeful that things will change. I am facing the future.”
The saying “give them roses while they’re living” clearly evokes Palcy, her work and most importantly, her unwavering spirit – she is someone to be celebrated and supported in the present. As we wind down our conversation, she is impassioned and clear-eyed when she tells me, “I have the same flame, the same talent, the same energy to make these films. I will never surrender. I am a warrior, in the noblest sense of the word. I will fight for this until the day I die because I was born to be a filmmaker.”
Euzhan Palcy’s March 17 In Conversation With... talk with TIFF executive director and co-head Joana Vicente is available to view for free at tiff.net. A new restoration of Sugar Cane Alley is available for rent on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.