Pioneering director Euzhan Palcy returns for the Oscar

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Director Euzhan Palcy has made history more than once in her four decades in film.

She was the first black woman to direct a film produced by a major studio (“A Dry White Season” by MGM), the first black female director of any gender to win the César in France, the first woman to win a Lion d Venice Money (for “Sugar Cane Alley”), the only woman to direct Marlon Brando and the first black woman to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination (also Brando). She paved the way for a generation of black 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 conviction that she holds today: “I was born to make films.”

Today, after a few years of absence, she is ready, at 64, to go back behind the camera. And what better way to start a comeback than with an Oscar? On Saturday, Palcy will receive an honorary statuette at the annual Governor’s Awards gala, in recognition of his contributions to film. She is celebrated alongside Australian director Peter Weir, songwriter Diane Warren and actor Michael J. Fox, who receives the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the non-televised event.

“I felt like it was the right time for me to show up again,” Palcy, from Paris, told The Associated Press. “I was ready.”

Palcy was born in Martinique, in the French West Indies, in 1958, and from the age of 10 she set her sights on acting even though it seemed like no one who did it, successfully at least, was like her. . His imagination was stimulated by “Black Orpheus” by Marcel Camus and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and. In the mid-1970s, she left for Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne and obtained a master’s degree in cinema from the prestigious Collège Louis-Lumière. There she was encouraged to pursue filmmaking by François Truffaut.

But she couldn’t find anyone to give her the money to make her first feature, “Sugar Cane Alley,” even after she secured a large grant from the French government that would usually pique the interest of financiers. The film is said to be an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel about 1930s Martinique, Africans working the sugar cane fields and their white landlords.

“I had a diploma from the most famous film school in France and it wasn’t enough,” Palcy said. “I was still black, I was still female, and I was still young.”

Still, she managed to make “Sugar Cane Alley” from scratch and it was a big hit, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a César for Best First Work. The most important thing for her, however, was that it resonated with Martinicans who told her they had never seen each other on screen before.

“Most people point out that I was a pioneer. They say it doesn’t make you happy? And that’s not it, but it’s hard, it’s hard to be a pioneer. People think it’s a big deal and it’s great, but there’s nothing and you pick a road and pave it. It takes a lot of tenacity, a lot of fighting, a lot of struggle, a lot of tears.

“I love the metaphor of a pregnant woman and the pregnancy is so hard for her and it’s hard to deliver this baby. Then once she does, she’s exhausted. That’s what I I felt when ‘Sugar Cane Alley’ came out. I couldn’t even enjoy the success of that movie,” 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 participate in the Sundance Director’s Lab, in 1984, and would be a sounding board as more offers came in. Life, for a while, was a whirlwind of courtesies and offerings.

Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher flew her to Los Angeles and gave her a warm welcome to try and get her to do a movie with them. Palcy asked about adapting “The Color Purple,” but was politely told that Steven Spielberg had already set his sights on it. She chose “A white and dry season”. The film nearly fell apart, however, when Warner Bros. brass decided after Universal’s release of “Cry Freedom” that two apartheid films were too many. MGM stepped in to do just that.

Palcy has always been unwavering in her vision. Paul Newman was desperate to be in the film, but she had her sights set on Donald Sutherland. She also convinced Brando, who had been retired for nine years, to play a role. For this, he received his eighth and final Oscar nomination.

After that, however, Hollywood became a mixed bag. She directed “Ruby Bridges” for Disney’s Wonderful World and “The Killing Yard”, a TV movie about the Attica prison riot. But about a decade ago, she decided she had to leave. She had heard no, and that film noir didn’t sell, too often. And he had been asked to make too many films that did not speak to him.

“I thought I couldn’t betray my ideals,” she said. “So I thought I should go away 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.

Over the years that followed, she received many letters and emails from people asking where she was and why she wasn’t making movies. Some of his movies have also had a second life: “A Dry White Season” got a Criterion restoration and “Ruby Bridges” started streaming on Disney+.

“My job is not for yesterday’s people,” she said. “My work is aimed at people of the new generation.”

Then earlier this year, she felt the time to come back was now. Shortly after, she received an honor in France and 24 hours later she received a phone call about the honorary Oscar.

“I said, ‘My God, what’s going on?’ It was worth the sadness and the struggle I had inside of me not being able to make my films,” she said.

Now she just hopes people don’t put her in a box, thinking she’s just a “political filmmaker.”

“I want to do all kinds of movies,” she said. “I can do any genre.”

Palcy wants to make one thing clear: while she’s candid about the hardships and adversity she’s faced, she wants people to know that she’s also a very positive person.

“It wasn’t a complaint,” she said. “But if they ask me about it, I’ll be honest.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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