Euzhan Palcy is a film director, writer and producer from Martinique, French West Indies. She is notable for being the first black woman director produced by a major Hollywood studio (MGM), for A Dry White Season, as well as being the only woman filmmaker to have directed Marlon Brando, whom she brought back to the screen after a gap of nine years. Palcy is the first black director (male or female) to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination and the first black director to win a César Award, the highest French film award. She is also the first black director to win of a Venice Film Festival Award (Silver Lion).
Early life and career
Born in Martinique, Euzhan Palcy grew up studying the films of Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles. She left for Paris in 1975 to earn a master's degree in French Literature, in theater at the Sorbonne, a D.E.A. in Art and Archeology and a film degree (specializing in cinematography) from renowned Louis Lumière College.
Sugar Cane Alley
It was in Paris, with the encouragement of her "French Godfather", François Truffaut, that she was able to put together her first feature, Sugar Cane Alley (1983). Shot for less than $1,000,000, it documents through the eyes of a young boy the love and sacrifice of a poor black family living on a Martinique sugar cane plantation in the 1930s. Sugar Cane Alley won over 17 international awards including the Venice Film Festival Silver Lion, as well as the Coppa Volpi (Volpi Cup) for Best Lead Actress Award (Darling Legitimus). It also won the prestigious César Award (the French equivalent to Academy Award) for best first feature film. Among the firsts, it won the Special Jury Award at the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival and the first Public Award at the Fespaco: Africa's biggest film festival.
After seeing Palcy's work, Robert Redford handpicked her to attend the 1984 Sundance Director's Lab (Sundance Institute), becoming her "American Godfather". And her son was named Aarion Norwood.
A Dry White Season
Marlon Brando was so moved by her next project, A Dry White Season (1989), and her commitment to social change that he came out of a self-imposed retirement, agreeing to act in the film for free. Also starring in the film were actors Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon. Palcy adapted A Dry White Season from the novel by South African writer, André Brink. The story focuses on the social movements of South Africa and the Soweto riots, and was heralded for putting the politics of apartheid into meaningful human terms. Palcy was so passionate about creating an accurate story depicting the reality of Apartheid, that she risked her life traveling undercover to South Africa. To research the riots, she was introduced to the people of Soweto township by Dr Motlana (Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s personal physician), while she eluded the South African secret services posing as a recording artist.
Palcy became the first black female director produced by a major Hollywood studio and is the only black filmmaker who succeeded in makingin the U.S. a narrative feature against apartheid on the silver screen during the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. The film enraged the South African oppressive regime and was banned in South Africa for a time. The late Senator Ted Kennedy supported the Filmmaker. Brando's performance in the movie earned him his 8th and last Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and he received the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo Film Festival. For her outstanding cinematic achievement, Palcy received the "Orson Welles Award" in Los Angeles. For the first anniversary of his election Nelson Mandela welcomed Euzhan Palcy in South Africa and granted her an exclusive interview that has yet to be discovered.
By 1992, Palcy veered away from the serious subject matters of her previous films to show the spirit and liveliness of her native Martinique with Simeon (1992), a musical comedic fairytale set in the Caribbean and Paris and the three-part documentary Aimé Césaire, A Voice For History (1994) about the famed Martinique poet, playwright and philosopher. Both garnered numerous awards and international critical acclaim.
Other works include for Disney/ABC Studios, Palcy directed and produced Ruby Bridges (1998) the story of the little New Orleans girl who was the first to integrate the public schools, immortalized in the painting by Norman Rockwell. President Bill Clinton and Disney President, Michael Eisner introduced the film from the White House to American audiences. Palcy’s film won four awards including The Christopher Awards, The Humanitas Prize, the National Educational Media Network Gold Apple and best performance Young actress award Young Artists Awards.
The Killing Yard
For Paramount/Showtime Studios, she directed The Killing Yard (2001), starring Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut. The drama is based on the true events surrounding the 1971 Attica prison riot which had an indelible impact on the American prison system and jury process. The film won the Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association.
In 2006, she wrote and directed the documentary, Parcours de Dissidents (The Journey of the Dissidents), narrated by Oscar-Nominated and esteemed French actor Gérard Depardieu about the unknown odyssey of the boys and girls from Martinique and Guadeloupe island (FWI) who were trained at Fort Dix New Jersey during WWII and became the daredevil soldiers of Free French Force Division 1.
Most recently, Palcy wrote and directed the French three-hour period piece set in the 17th century, Les Mariées de I’isles Bourbon (The Brides of Bourbon Island) (2007). It tells of a romantic, historic epic action adventure where three women survive a harrowing ocean voyage from France to forcibly marry French expatriates on the island of Réunion.
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. In 1997 in Amiens, France, a movie theater was named "Cinema Euzhan Palcy." In 2000, she received the honor of having Martinique's first high school dedicated to film study named after her and was presented with the Sojourner Truth Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, she was the recipient of the famous French Medal of Honor from French President Jacques Chirac. Miss Palcy is citizen of honour of New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, Sarasota, Fl.
Palcy’s drive for the life and compassion for humanity inspire each and every project with which she is involved. Her passion spills into all areas of cinematic lexicon to include the animation, thriller, comedy and action genres. For Fox Studios, Palcy developed an animated feature, currently entitled “Katoumbaza”. She is actively developing a feature film, on “Bessie Coleman,” for which she recorded the very last witness of the first African American woman aviator journey in France and, an action comedy set in Los Angeles and Paris. Palcy has chosen “Teaching Toots,” a comedy drama on illiteracy, a project close to her heart, to be her next film to co-produce and direct.
Palcy’s interest in humanitarian work and to support the younger generation has been known for years. Her last production has been Moly, the autobiographical short of disabled one-legged Senegalese young filmmaker Moly Kane. The film was screened in Cannes with rapturous public acclaim. Palcy announced on stage that Moly Kane will receive the prosthetic leg of his dreams so that he could be free to film with his camera.
In 1989, Euzhan Palcy entered the list of “Glamour Magazine 10 most inspiring women”. In 1994, she was honored with the distinction of Knight in the National Order Merit from French President, François Mitterrand. In 1997 a movie theater near Amiens in France was named “Cinema Euzhan Palcy.” In 2000, she humbly received the honor of having Martinique’s first high school dedicated to film study named after her and was presented with the Sojourner Truth Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
In 2007, On March 25, 2007 for the Bicentenary of the Abolition Trade Slave Act in the UK, the National Maritime Museum in London launched her first retrospective with the screening of Sugar Cane Alley. Later that year the British Film Institute / BBC online poll “The 100 Black Screen Icons” of the last 100 years ranked #3.
In October 2009, She received the Unita Blackwell Award in Las Vegas for the 35th anniversary of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Euzhan Palcy is citizen of Honor of New York, Atlanta, New Orleans and Sarasota FL.
In December of the same year, her first film, “Sugar Cane Alley,“ was selected for the third time by the French National Educational Organization (the organization that chooses the films from all over the world to be studied in French schools) then breaking the record of any films participating to the system in the history of the organization. In December 2009, Palcy was the patron of the 20th anniversary of the organization at the Cinémathèque (the French Museum of Cinema) with Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand and director Costa Gavras. In 2010, she was the Honoree of France Black Art Awards broadcast on France Television Group, she was the first recipient of the Art and Media Prize of the Gotha Noir de France (France Black Who’s Who) and in December 2010, she was honored at the Women’s Gala of 3rd World Black Arts Festival of Culture in Senegal, the biggest African Festival ever.
On April 6, 2011, Euzhan Palcy directed “Le Film Hommage” that introduced “France National Tribute to Aimé Césaire at the Pantheon” with the keynote speech of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in front of an audience 1 000 dignitaries. The event was broadcast live on the French National TV (France 2).
A month later, on May 14, French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand and Cannes Film Festival paid tribute to the director with the screening of “Sugar Cane Alley” in the prestigious Cannes Classics Series (Cannes official selection of the Masterpieces of the Century). Heralded as one of the most important independent film of the last 50 years “Sugar Cane Alley” is studied in most Colleges and US Universities (Cinema studies, French studies, African American studies) In February 2009, Philadelphia Inquirer veteran film critic Carrie Rickey put “Sugar Cane Alley” in her top list of the films that should be screened at the White House to keep hope alive.
On May 18, just days later, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City honored the director with “Filmmaker in Focus: Euzhan Palcy” (May 18- May 30), the first retrospective of her career and “first retrospective of a black woman filmmaker at the MoMA”. The Department of Film has acquired for its collection new 35mm prints of Palcy’s “Rue Cases-Nègres” and “Siméon” (1992), her Caribbean musical-comedy fairytale—which by the closing credits of its New York premiere at MoMA last Friday had literally sparked dancing in the aisles of the theater said Ron Magliozzi, the assistant film curator of MoMA.
On June 18, 2011, Palcy’s “The Journey of the Dissidents” (“Parcours de Dissidents”) was screened at the French Military School at the invitation of the French Minister of Defense and the Minister of Overseas Territories. A National Exhibition (“La Dissidence en Martinique et en Guadeloupe 1940-1945”), based on her film was launched at the French National Staff Headquarters on July 7 and is currently exhibited simultaneously in everyone of the 101 Prefectures (equivalent of our Federal government building of every counties) along with the screening of her film.
September 12, 2011 The Director General of Unesco, Ms Irina Bokova, named Euzhan Palcy in the international sponsoring committee for the Unesco program of 2011-2013 -- “TAGORE, NERUDA and CESAIRE, for a reconciled universal”.
On October 13, 2011 she did the opening of 7th Women's Forum in Deauville.
“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.” – Roger Ebert.
Since 2013, Euzhan Palcy has been named by the French President member of National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery (CNMHE).
- In 1990, she received a Candace Award for Trailblazing from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
- In 1995, she was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre national du Mérite.
- In 2004 her son Aarion was born, she was the recipient of the famous French Legion of Honor French by President Jacques Chirac.
- On September 28, 2011, Euzhan Palcy was decorated with the Officer Medal of the National Order of Merit by French President Sarkozy at the Palais de l'Elysee.