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Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989), Academy Awards, and The Future of Black Women Producing Film

February 29, 2016

Television and film slowly began to close the gap of racial and gender disparity in artistic control by the end of the 1980s. Though America struggled with social and wealth disparity in the age of Reganomics marred by the social implications of drug use and gang violence in inner cities. As these social ills climaxed, so did the rise of artistic reflections in urban areas. Hip hop became a widespread cultural phenomenon in which inner city poets reveled in detailing the sights of their lives and communities over danceable beats. Graffiti art became another outlet allowing urban artists to create something that resonated with them away from the confines of society’s preconceived notions of art. Filmmakers continued to seek refuge in moving pictures and Black women achieved greater success and accessibility in doing so.

For the first time in the history of cinema a Black woman received financial backing from a major motion picture to vocalize a story near to her heart in 1989. That woman was Martinique native Euzhan Palcy. Since childhood Palcy says she had a passion for directing formerly coaching her siblings through after-dinner plays. In 1977, Palcy left Martinique for Paris where she soon met famed French new-wave director François Truffaut. The two became friends and Truffaut’s fondness of Palcy benefited the budding director as he took her under his wing encouraging her to make her film debut Sugar Cane Alley in 1983. The film owed its bearings to a grant funded by the French government and Sugar Cane Alley quickly grew legs resulting in widespread international acclaim. Sugar Cane Alley interlaces a young Black orphan’s coming of age with the harsh realities of race relations in 1930s Martinique on the fields of a sugar cane plantation.

A DRY WHITE SEASON, director Euzhan Palcy on set, 1989, (c) MGM

Palcy’s bold story and rich subject manner impressed Hollywood so much that producers immediately scrambled to win her attention. “That’s what they do, as soon as a filmmaker comes out with a big movie that makes a lot of money, has big success, they want to work with you” Palcy said of Warner Brothers’ attempts to work with her. Unimpressed with the idea of Hollywood, Palcy declined working with the company and instead traveled to Sundance as a handpicked guest of actor and Sundance Film Festival founder, Robert Redford. Redford had seen Sugar Cane Alley and was so impressed that he wanted to treat her as a guest at Sundance quickly becoming a close confident of Palcy. Before arriving at Sundance, Palcy had finished reading the controversial tale of two families suffering under the affects of the apartheid in South Africa. She immediately adapted a screenplay from the book A Dry White Season. When she told Redford of the many offers she had received along with her new script he convinced her to try her chances in Hollywood. Palcy offered her script to Warner Brothers before MGM ultimately accepted allowing her to direct the film herself.

Palcy took her role seriously as a screenwriter and director for the project. She took care of the story with a pregnant delicacy being sure to capture the book’s hardships and the very real negative aspects of the apartheid. Palcy wanted an established actor the film’s lead role to ensure that it’d have the staying power she confidently knew it would. She offered the part to Marlon Brando who was so marveled by the screenplay that he offered to do the film for free. Palcy’s direction earned Brando his 8th and last nomination for Best Supporting Actor and A Dry White Season went on to become a sensation acclaimed by critics and film goers while getting banned in South Africa. Looking back on her career in an interview with Indiewire, Palcy recalls the challenges of working on A Dry White Season and how her conviction and determination to not budge on structural, important aspects of the film helped her keep her dignity and make the film she wanted to make.

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In L.A. the movement of Black filmmakers of UCLA continued its powerhouse of production. Zeinabu irene Davis, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Melvonna Ballenger were among the most successful and well-known students creating films rooted in New Wave techniques, stream of conscious narrative, and focusing on problems relating to the women who led the focus of their films. All of the films created by these women of the era made didn’t shy away from the history of those who made it. Often times these films encapsulated the hardships of navigating through America while being Black. These women showed a powerful creativity and self-assurance in their films which paved the way for greatness in the years to come of our present standing where female directors like Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons, Gina Price Blythewood, Amma Asante, Darnell Martin and many more have achieved great success and sole artistic merit in delivering their stories. These women thrive because of the tireless hard work of Tessie Sounders, Maria P. Williams, Eloyce Gist and the many other, unsung and unrecognized Black women in the motion picture making industry.

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Despite the success for Black women directors, producers, and screenwriters from the 1980s on until now, the recognition and accolades for women of color in Hollywood is still on a painstakingly slow crawl. To this day, not one single woman of African descent has gotten nominated for Best Director and we have yet to see another woman of color take a singular win for Screenplay. Moreover, Hollywood still lacks a colorful bouquet of faces backing, creating, and telling stories of their choice to the audiences at large. But as last night’s Academy Awards ceremony showcased to the masses the conversations are finally taking place and are challenging the status quo. Hollywood’s shut out of people of color and its division between the genders is continually getting critiqued for the greater good of art and race relations. It may be slow crawl to the finish line of racial and gender equality, but the more we know of our past the more we can demand of our present to secure equality for all in a promising future.

Further Reading:

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness. Minnesota: University Of Minnesota Press. 2004

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