Mixed media spotlight: Euzhan Palcy
It’s 35 years since the release of film-maker Euzhan Palcy’s award-winning directorial debut, Sugar Cane Alley. Her adaptation of Josef Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel, Rue cases nègres, is set on Palcy’s home island of Martinique in the 1930s and explores the legacy of the slave trade, as experienced by the central character, a young boy named José.
The first Black woman director of a Hollywood movie, Palcy went on to work with some of the biggest stars in film, including Marlon Brando, Susan Sarandon and Donald Sutherland, winning countless awards for both her cinematic and humanitarian work. She has been writer, director and producer of too many films to list. She is, she tells me, a strong believer in ‘possibility’.
‘When I was 10, I told my father I was dreaming of making movies. We went to the little theatre on my little island all the time but I noticed that Blacks were absent from the screen, except for in degrading roles, and that hurt! I knew I had to fix it. So I went to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne: Art, Opera, Film, Theatre, everything I loved. It was natural for me to choose Sugar Cane Alley as my first film. Like me, Zobel was born on Martinique. It’s his story, but it’s also my story, the story of all the Caribbean people, people taken from Africa to work in slavery. I recognized my people, my history, in that story.’
Palcy says that gaining a foothold in the film industry was particularly difficult as a young Black woman with no contacts. She used her difference as a tool to bring something unique to what was a well-established industry, controlled by ‘rich white men’. Even now, there are very few women in key decision-making roles in the business – and this is why she feels so strongly about the #MeToo movement.
‘It’s too bad that we need a campaign for parity between men and women in the 21st century. Women have always been at the forefront of every struggle, every revolution! Take any painting where there are revolutions depicted. Who do you see in the frontline? Females. Maybe with the flag, holding children, marching in rags… Women have always been a force of nature.
‘#MeToo gives a voice to women from what President Trump calls “shit hole countries”! Actually they are not “shit hole countries”, they are just poor and must be educated about the power and possibilities of what women can bring to them and to the rest of the world by being free.’
Though she feels the global political stage is being taken over by the political Right, Palcy is hopeful that the struggle for equality is not lost.
‘Almost all over the world, the economic situation is being exploited by people spreading hate against migrants who, in order to survive, brave jungles, oceans, even death with their children. It’s normal to want better! Now Trump is saying: “These people are invaders, get them out! Let’s build a wall!” I see this in Europe, but I don’t believe it’s more than a bad season. The seasons pass and we humanists will never let evil win.’
In researching for her screenplay of André Brink’s novel, A Dry White Season, Palcy undertook the dangerous task of travelling undercover to South Africa and Zimbabwe in the late 1980s to meet the people involved in the struggle against Apartheid.
‘This was not just a Hollywood movie, it was real life; the stories were real. Marlon Brando, who played the human-rights lawyer, was a brilliant, difficult man. We had a little fight in the end because I cut a scene he wanted and he was very upset. He said: “We have to show the reality.” But the reality was too extreme and disturbing to put on screen. He was an icon, a really great eccentric guy. And he did it for free!’
The film’s success led to a meeting with Nelson Mandela. I ask her about whispers that she conducted an in-depth interview with him at his home, but never released the footage.
‘I recorded him, for pleasure, you know? He was working hard to put women into key positions in his government. He believed that women are strong and powerful and can be a force for the betterment of any country, and leaders who do not use their force to push their countries forward are just stupid! He was right.
‘Following that, I was honoured to receive the Oliver Tambo distinction. Tambo and Mandela were brothers in arms – Tambo was the architect of democracy in South Africa. But regardless of accolades, I do what I was born for. I am a filmmaker on a mission, to tell not only political stories but human stories. I make films about everything that it means to be human.’