Euzhan Palcy – the first Black woman film maker in Hollywood

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Euzhan Palcy – the first Black woman film maker in Hollywood

Euzhan Palcy tells Subi Shah what gave her the idea to be a filmmaker 35 years ago, and what helps her to make more films.


35 years ago Euzhan Palcy made her first film, Sugar Cane Alley, and won an award. The film is set on Palcy’s home island of Martinique in the 1930s. It is about a young boy named José and life after the slave trade.

Paley is the first Black woman director of a Hollywood film. Palcy worked with some of the biggest stars in film, including Marlon Brando, Susan Sarandon, and Donald Sutherland. She has won many awards for films and her humanitarian work. She has been a writer, director, and producer of too many films to list. She tells me that she believes strongly in ‘possibility’.

‘When I was 10, I told my father I was dreaming of making films. We went to the little cinema on my little island all the time. But I noticed that there were no Blacks in the films but only in bad roles. That hurt me! I knew I had to do something. 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. My first film was from a book by Josef Zobel. Like me, he 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 starting in the film industry was very difficult for a young Black woman with no contacts. ‘Rich white men’ control the film industry and she used her difference to bring something very different. Even now, there are very few women in important 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 equality between men and women in the 21st century. Women have always been there to start every revolution! For example, in paintings where there are revolutions, you see women leaders. Maybe with the flag, holding children, marching in rags… Women have always been strong.

‘#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 need education about the power and possibilities women can bring to them and to the rest of the world by being free.’ She feels the political Right has the power in global politics but she hopes that the fight for equality is not lost.

‘Almost all over the world, people are spreading hate against migrants. To survive, migrants face jungles, oceans, and 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 we humanists will never let evil win.’

When she planned the film of André Brink’s novel, A Dry White Season, she made a dangerous journey undercover to South Africa and Zimbabwe in the late 1980s. There she met the people involved in the fight against Apartheid.

‘This was not just a Hollywood film, it was real life. The stories were real. Marlon Brando played the human-rights lawyer. He was a brilliant, difficult man. We had a little fight in the end because I cut a scene he wanted and he was very angry. He said: “We have to show real life.” But real life was too extreme to put in a film. He was a superstar, a really great and very different man. And he did it for free!’

The film’s success led to a meeting with Nelson Mandela. I ask her about stories that she did an interview with him at his home.

‘I recorded him, for pleasure, you know? He was working hard to put women into important positions in his government. He believed that women are strong and powerful and can make a country better. And leaders who do not use strong women to help their countries are just stupid! He was right. ‘After that I received the Oliver Tambo award. Tambo and Mandela were brothers in arms – Tambo built democracy in South Africa. But the awards are not important. I do what I was born for. I am a filmmaker and I want to tell political stories and human stories. I make films about everything that it means to be human.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)