Euzhan Palcy, Film Director, Writer & Producer

Meet Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film and a pioneer for black women in film.

God-daughter to the late Maya Angelou and an inspiration to Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay, Euzhan Palcy has many accolades under belt as the first black director (male or female) to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination, the first black director to win a Cesar Award, the highest French film award. Also the first black director to to win a Venice film Award, and, the first only woman film maker to have directed Marlon Brando.

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During this episode, I meet with Euzhan Palcy in London’s May Fair Hotel, to celebrate the British Film Institutes 62nd Film Festival. In this intimate conversation, we talk through her time as a film maker and speak openly about feminism, rejecting whiteness as a default and cultural appropriation in film.

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 more than 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 an 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".

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. 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 making in 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 Mandela welcomed Euzhan Palcy in South Africa and granted her an exclusive interview.

Other works

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. Her interest in humanitarian work and supporting the younger generation has been known for years. Her last production has been Moly, a biographical short on young disabled one-legged Senegalese filmmaker Moly Kane. The film was screened in Cannes to rapturous public acclaim. Palcy announced on stage that Moly Kane would receive the prosthetic leg of his dreams so that he could be free to film with his camera.

Follow Euzhan Palcyi on Twitter: @EuzhanPalcy

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